Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (18-14-4, 40 points, 7th place Metropolitan Division) @ Boston Bruins (23-7-6, 52 points, 1st place Atlantic Division)
When: 7:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch: Nationally broadcast game on ESPN
Pens’ Path Ahead: Up next is a home game against Buffalo on Saturday and then the Pens hit the road to meet up with the Flyers on Monday. After that they get a couple days off before hosting the Vancouver Canucks next Thursday.
Opponent Track: The Bruins come into tonight winners of four-straight since the Christmas break, most recently with a 4-1 victory over Columbus on Tuesday.
Season Series: It’s the first PIT/BOS game of the year, they’ll play again on March 9th (again in Boston) and then just once in Pittsburgh all the way on April 13th (Game No. 80 on the year for the Pens).
Hidden Stat: Per Pens PR, Pittsburgh has dropped three-consecutive games to Boston (0-2-1). The Penguins haven’t lost four in a row to the Bruins since an 0-4-1 stretch from Jan. 7, 2015- Feb. 24, 2016.
Getting to know the Bruins
Pavel Zacha - Morgan Geekie - David Pastrnak
Brad Marchand - Charlie Coyle - Jake DeBrusk
James van Riemsdyk - Trent Frederic - Danton Heinen
Jakub Lauko - Georgi Merkulov - Oskar Steen
Mason Lohrei / Charlie McAvoy
Hampus Lindholm / Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk / Kevin Shattenkirk
Goalies: Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman
Possible scratches: John Beecher, Parker Wotherspoon
IR: Derek Forbort, Milan Lucic
—The above is a first place lineup. Doesn’t really look like it with star power, and might not make sense for Penguin fans used to strength down the middle, but it’s a first place lineup nonetheless due to excellent goaltending, defense, and just enough skill to be dangerous.
—Heinen returned to the team that drafted him and shook off a poor 2022-23 season with a bounce back this year. Nice to see, he did some good things for the Penguins but any sort of cold streak for a replacement-ish level player that doesn’t have an abundance of skill is going to mean a change of address.
—A thought broke out in the comment section the other day about if Auston Matthews is under-the-radar for acclaim as a top player/star based on his elite goal scoring going perhaps under recognized. Personally, I wouldn’t see it that way - depending on what you’re consuming. Matthews, after all, was interviewed on the Penguins’ broadcast on Tuesday on ESPN prior to his own game. He’s the face of the Maple Leafs and has the highest cap hit kicking in next year, I’d say he’s pretty well-covered, revered and recognized if you spend any amount of time with Sportsnet, TSN or any Canadian-based media. All this to say, David Pastrnak might be an even better “superstar vs. attention” candidate. Sure, he was in those ubiquitous Dunkin ads and so this isn’t to say he doesn’t have a high profile. But this is a player who is about as productive in the past few years (this side of Edmonton) and doesn’t get a ton of individual love or recognition as one of the elite player these days. Since 2018-19, Pastrnak is fourth in goals and fifth in points in the NHL. Maybe it’s because he’s a winger or not North American, but it’s arguable that based on the pure definition that Pastrnak is the most valuable player on a team these days. And yet, probably 90% of the time he’s not even referred to by his full name, because it’s tough to spell and “Pasta” is easier. If Pastrnak isn’t recognized as a top-3 or top-5 type player in the league regularly, he should be.
—Ullmark’s stats have regressed a little from last year, as to be expected, but are still strong enough. Swayman has continued to build on his strong early season play and could become the “1A” pretty soon. It’s something of a lost secret with Ullmark’s big contract that he wasn’t truly brought into be “the guy” but one of a couple good options. Boston does as good a job as any NHL team at having quality and multiple options in net, and not really the standard “Shesterkin/Sorokin #1 to ride until the wheels fall off” type.
How does Boston do it?
The Bruins had 65 wins and 135 points last season — both NHL records. Obviously when a team has the best (regular) season ever, there’s only one way to go from the top of the mountain and that’s down, so the question wasn’t if they would fall off from last year’s pace but by how much. The retirement of Patrice Bergeron (and also David Krejci, though advanced stats were impressed less than his boxcar stats at his overall impact), many predicted this could be the year the Bruins fell off completely, even out of the playoff picture.
Turns out, Bergeron wasn’t worth a 40+ point fall after all, which we all should have seen coming. One player isn’t the different between that much of the results, the team still is well-coached, has good and deep personnel. Nearing the half-way point of the season, Boston is on a 118 point pace and comfortably chugging along towards playoff qualification.
But how do the Bruins keep winning despite a lineup that doesn’t look completely impressive on paper? Crushing the special teams battle and receiving excellent goaltending goes a long way towards getting regular season results. Here’s one outlook to show how the teams match up this season.
The Bruins and Penguins have been similar defensively (though Pittsburgh has smoke and mirrored a poor defensive process up with quality goaltending to a larger degree). The Bruins, like almost everyone, are better at finishing than the Pens and their power play is a lot better. (Pastrnak’s 22 PPP rank fifth in the NHL this season, Marchand isn’t too far behind with 18).
In simplistic enough terms, power play and finishing is the difference and reason Boston is in first place in their division, conference and league, and the Pens are fighting to stay in the playoff pack.
And now for the Penguins
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Rickard Rakell
Reilly Smith - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Drew O’Connor - Lars Eller - Valtteri Puustinen
Jansen Harkins - Noel Acciari - Jeff Carter
Marcus Pettersson / Kris Letang
P.O. Joseph / Erik Karlsson
Ryan Graves / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Tristan Jarry, Alex Nedeljkovic
Potential scratches: Radim Zohorna, Ryan Shea
IR: Matt Nieto (lower body injury), John Ludvig (upper body injury)
—The Ryan Graves slide down the depth chart continues with his unimpressive play as of late. The Pens’ big free agent signing started on the top pair and has now slunk away to the bottom.
—Ludvig didn’t practice yesterday and is injured and now added to IR, which explains his recent absence. Ludvig went on LTIR so the team could afford the space to call up Shea as a replacement. Ludvig was termed with an upper body injury, concerning given his style of play and the fact he took a few punches to the head from Matt Martin last week. Ludvig suffered a concussion a few months ago in his first NHL game and his history of head injuries with his style is turning into an unfortunate potential development.
—But as always with injuries, bad news for one player is often good news for another. And what a huge opportunity this presents for Joseph. Joseph has also endured a downward trend this season and has barely played in the past few weeks and months, most recently by coach’s decision. Now, due to Graves being unplayable on a top pair and Ludvig being out for the foreseeable future, Joseph is getting perhaps the last best chance of his Pittsburgh career to have an opportunity to play himself into the lineup to stay.
Figuring it out
Bryan Rust talked a little about what the team has and will attempt to address following the rotten start against Washington on Tuesday night.
A couple of players mentioned wanting to look at the video to have a better idea of what went wrong at the start of last night's game. I followed up with Bryan Rust about the takeaway from this morning's session:— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 3, 2024
"I just think we got to be a little bit harder and more simple…
- As mentioned in the infographic, it’s career game No. 1,100 tonight for Evgeni Malkin (and check that graphic out by the way at the number of points scored in the first 1,100 games of a career. Malkin’s in the conversation with the all-timers there).
- Erik Karlsson (785) is two points behind tying the late, great Borje Salming (787) for the second most NHL points for a Swedish born defender (naturally, it’s Nicklas Lidstrom at 1,142 that is way out at the front of the pack).
- Drew O’Connor (11) is one point away from setting a new modest career-high for points in a season. O’Connor has three points (2G+1A) in his last five games and is playing some quality hockey lately after a dreadful beginning of the season.