Who: Florida Panthers (29-14-4, 62 points, 2nd place Atlantic Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (21-16-6, 48 points, 7th in points in the Metropolitan Division [5th in points%])
When: 7:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch: Sportsnet Pittsburgh, Bally Sports Florida, streaming on ESPN+
Pens’ Path Ahead: One more day and game to go until All Star break. The Montreal Canadiens are in the ‘Burgh to complete the rare home set of two games in as many days for the Pens. Up next, one of the best times of year for the players, many of whom will go off on their own for a week’s worth of rest and relaxation in sunnier climates.
Opponent Track: The Panthers had a nine-game winning streak end recently on January 13th. Including that night, Florida is only 2-2-2 in their previous six games — but most immediately they have won two in a row to get back on track in recent days. That included a rock ‘em, sock ‘em, old school fight-fest against Arizona on Wednesday, where the Panthers thrived off the rough stuff and won 6-2.
Season Series: Florida won the first meeting this season in a 3-1 win for them at home in a close game — Eetu Luostarinen broke a 1-1 tie in the third period and FLA tacked on an empty net goal. Tonight is the second PIT/FLA game, the third and final regular season matchup is in a few weeks on Valentine’s Day (2/14).
Hidden Stat: Pens PR with a good one today: last season, no player in the NHL had more points against the Florida Panthers than Kris Letang, who tallied seven points (4G+3A) in three games. His four goals versus them trailed only Auston Matthews (5G in 4GP).
Getting to know the Panthers
Carter Verhaeghe - Sam Bennett - Matthew Tkachuk
Evan Rodrigues - Aleksander Barkov - Mackie Samoskevich
Eetu Luostarinen - Anton Lundell - Sam Reinhart
Jonah Gadjovich - Kevin Stenlund - Ryan Lomberg
Gustav Forsling / Aaron Ekblad
Nikko Mikkola /Brandon Montour
Oliver Ekman-Larsson / Dmitri Kulikov
Goalies: Sergei Bobrovsky and Anthony Stolarz
Possible scratches: William Lockwood, Steven Lorentz, Josh Mahura
IR: Nick Cousins
—The first line accounted for three goals last game against the Coyotes. Tkachuk set the tone with an early goal about a minute after there were two separate fights at the start of the game and the Panthers were off and running from there.
—I say this often but between Verhaeghe, Forsling, Lundell and others, Florida has a ton of under-rated and really solid players to go along with the stars that take up all the oxygen and get a lot of the attention.
—One of those burgeoning stars has been Sam Reinhart, who is having the definition of a contract year glow up. There’s hot streaks and then there’s this: in the last 15 games dating back to December 23rd, Reinhart has 17 goals,to go with only four assists (but hey who needs to pass when the goals are going in?). Reinhart has been more likely to have a multi-goal game (three times) than not score a goal at all (only twice) in those last 15 games. 10 of these goals have come on the power play. Has to be a major concern for the Penguins with this red hot player doing so much damage these days.
—The stats paint a pretty picture. Most of the key players have been healthy all season (or in the cases of Ekblad and Montour, healthy upon making their season debuts). Not many holes via injury so far and the goaltending has been steady too. Add in four point-per-game players and a bevy of capable supporting doing well and it makes for a really great beginning of the season.
—A really good redemption story this season has been that of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He was bought out from Vancouver and fading for a while, but his career has been rejuvenated in Florida already. He’s in a great spot to play a mid-level role in all situations and has proven that the disastrous Act II of his career in Vancouver is behind him.
While skill players like Reinhart popping off grab the attention, there’s a secret sauce to explain why the Panthers are one of the top teams in the East this season. And it has nothing to do with scoring.
Under veteran coach Paul Maurice (best known for long previous stints with Carolina and Winnipeg), the Panthers have blossomed into an elite defensive team. They limit the opponent’s chances incredibly well. Their special teams are solid with a power play and penalty kill comfortably in the top-half of the league. Sometimes fans can bemoan the fact that the same coaches tend to get recycled around the NHL, but Maurice and the Panthers is a perfect example of why that trend is and the benefits of having an experienced coach.
Much like the Penguins, Florida generates a lot of offensive chances, and much like the Pens the Panthers also leave a lot on the table in terms of not turning expected goals into actual ones. If they ever get that firing and figure out how to convert more, they might really take off and go up a level as one of the NHL’s true juggernaut teams.
For their part, the Pens still play too wide open, but it’s covered up by excellent goaltending. As is well known, they haven’t been getting enough finishing and the power play is rotten.
And now for the Penguins
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Drew O’Connor - Evgeni Malkin - Colin White
Rickard Rakell - Lars Eller - Valtteri Puustinen
Jansen Harkins - Noel Acciari - Jeff Carter
Marcus Pettersson / Kris Letang
Ryan Graves / Erik Karlsson
P.O. Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic
Potential Scratch: Ryan Shea, Reilly Smith (injured)
IR: Matt Nieto (out from knee surgery until March), John Ludvig (upper body injury)
—The Pens have stuck with some recent changes in their last couple days of practice. It sees Colin White getting a shot with Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell dropping down a line.
—There have been no meaningful changes on the injury front; Ludvig and Smith continue to do some individual on ice work prior to team practices in recent days but neither have advanced much and with the long break coming are likely going to take the time given for February returns.
Driving a commitment
Lars Eller spoke yesterday about what it’s going to take for the Penguins to get back on track.
Eller: “I know that the highest level that we’re capable of playing is good enough to beat everyone, but we have to come together and do it much more consistently. I think it’s just a matter of commitment, hunger, and mental preparation.” pic.twitter.com/s8wvoJSa3e— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 25, 2024
Earlier in the week, Crosby referenced some of those same points and used the 2022-23 Panthers as an example of what can happen for a team that has to grind out a playoff spot throughout the regular season.
Sidney Crosby referenced Friday's opponent, the Panthers, when asked about being in the hunt for a playoff spot since early in the season ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/NGihgfWLp4— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 24, 2024
Spotlight on Colin White
The most curious player usage in a while for the Pens has to be putting White (buried in the minors for all but three games this season) on the already sputtering Evgeni Malkin line. It’s an odd fit being as White has morphed into a fourth line role, which he played for these Panthers in their run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
The obvious opportunity isn’t lost on White heading into tonight.
Colin White, who skated with Malkin and O’Connor today, on his recent play. pic.twitter.com/BvcusfeX9a— Dan Potash (@DanPotashTV) January 24, 2024
Both coach Mike Sullivan and White have recently spoke about his ability in the defensive end as a key point for what to expect and why the shift has happened. Could that be a focus to buoy Malkin’s performances lately? The team probably isn’t too worried about Malkin when they have the puck or get into the offensive zone, but adding a player with a touch of responsibility could be the missing ingredient to boost what’s been a stagnant stretch for Malkin (to put it lightly). Also in the positive column, the third line gives some balance and is likely the best on-paper third line for the Pens in a while, in theory at least.
Then again, on the other side of the coin, adding a grinder who doesn’t have a lot of offensive tools might not be a hopeful recipe for bolstering Malkin and serve to do anything besides limit what he can do best to play on and off the puck with skilled wingers.
With Smith still out and not many other options that haven’t been tried, it feels a bit desperate and a resigned move at the same time. But at this point it will be an experiment that could yield unexpected results being as it is a fairly unconventional move. Surely the O’Connor-Malkin-White line has a short shelf-life that might not even last until the second period of this game, but it is the latest and most drastic attempt to figure out how to get the most out of Malkin right now. That will make for an interesting storyline in this game to see what happens, especially since the group has had the last two days to practice together in addition to a little bit of last game.