Who: Minnesota Wild (22-23-5, 49 points, 7th place Central Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (23-17-7, 53 points, 5th place Metropolitan Division)
When: 8:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch: Sportsnet Pittsburgh, Bally Sports Wisconsin and North, streaming on ESPN+
Pens’ Path Ahead: It’s a quick trip north for the Pens, where it’s not even bitterly cold right now, so that’s nice for them. Pittsburgh rematches the game from earlier in the week against Winnipeg tomorrow (7pm local start time, which is a double nice turn of events). Then it’s three more days off before the Pens gear up for a back-to-back next week, hosting the Florida Panthers on Wednesday and hitting the road for a quick trip to Chicago next Thursday.
Opponent Track: The Wild came back from their bye week with a 2-1 win over Chicago on Wednesday night. The bye came at a good time, Minnesota was only 6-10-1 from Christmas until the All-Star break in a tough stretch that’s whittled their playoff chances down.
Season Series: This is it for Pens/Wild on the year, Pittsburgh took the first game 4-3 in regulation back on December 18. Sidney Crosby scored a power play goal in the third period to break a 3-3 tie, Marc-Andre Fleury watched from the bench in what might have been his last playing appearance in Pittsburgh.
From the “what could go wrong” file: The Penguins enter tomorrow’s game with points in 10-consecutive games versus the Wild (9-0-1) dating back to 2018, courtesy of the Pens’ PR department.
Getting to know the Wild
Kirill Kaprizov - Ryan Hartman - Mats Zuccerallo
Marcus Johansson - Joel Eriksson Ek - Matt Boldy
Marcus Foligno - Marco Rossi - Frederick Gaudreau
Brandon Duhaime - Jake Lucchini - Vinni Lettieri
Jake Middleton / Brock Faber
Alex Goligoski / Zach Bogosian
Dakota Mermis / Jon Merrill
Goalies: Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavsson
Possible scratches: Adam Beckman, Declan Chrisholm, Jonas Brodin
IR: Connor Dewar, Pat Maroon, Jared Spurgeon
—Lettieri is a “straw who stirs the drink” type of player for the Wild. He made his return last game and had two assists against Chicago. Minnesota only won five of the 15 games Lettieri was recently out of the lineup with injury, which may lead to some cause and effect issues, but he does seem to give the team a spark when he plays. The Penguins felt that first-hand in December when Lettieri scored a goal to tie the game against them.
—A stick tap to former Penguin farmhand Jake Lucchini, who scored a goal last game. Lucchini has had a long and winding road filled mostly with AHL time over the years, but has seen his hard work and persistence pay off with the reward of a spot in the NHL lineup these days.
—Big woof to those bottom two defense pairs. The absence of captain Spurgeon (lost for the season with injury) is one Minnesota will feel acutely down the stretch. And where would they be if the rookie Faber didn’t step up and instantly gel as a big time player? Scary thought for the Wild right now.
—Mired in salary cap purgatory until the end of the 2024-25 season due to the $14.7 million cap penalties in the Ryan Suter/Zach Parise buyouts, the Wild have stubbornly attempted to forge on without backing down. The results have been, well, not the best. GM Bill Guerin has double downed and extended much of his core (Zuccarello, Foligno, Hartman) for years to come. Whether that’s worth locking into is worth debating, but the performance this season has been disappointing overall. The Wild have some decent pieces (Eriksson Ek on a cap hit north of $5 million is one of the best value long-term extensions around) but are fairly stuck in the NHL’s middle lane of not being great with no plans to tear down any time soon.
—Gustavsson has been handling most of the work lately, playing the last five games for the Wild. Fleury has only played one game since January 15th (a Jan. 19th start against Florida that he left after 30 minutes). Minnesota doesn’t play again until Monday, do they want to get Fleury back in the lineup after a long break? Or keep riding Gustavsson, who stopped 20/21 in the win last game? There’s also this to consider:
Fleury celebration night
The Wild fittingly chose tonight’s game against the Pens to honor Marc-Andre Fleury for passing Patrick Roy and taking over second place in NHL career wins and getting to 1,000 games overall.
Marc-Andre Fleury Night will be Feb. 9 before the #mnwild face his old #pens— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) January 16, 2024
He’ll be honored for becoming the fourth goalie to play 1,000 games and for passing Patrick Roy for second all-time in wins. pic.twitter.com/Io2Dc1I7dS
According to the Wild, events include:
The team will hold a special pregame ceremony and feature Fleury-themed in-game elements throughout the evening. All fans in attendance will receive a commemorative ticket, lanyard and rally towel courtesy of WinCraft. Additionally, the Minnesota Wild Foundation will honor Fleury’s milestones by making a $5,000 donation to the charity of his choice. The team will wear commemorative jerseys during pregame warmups that display Fleury’s name and number on the back and each respective player’s number on the sleeves.
It would be odd not to play a guy on his own celebration night, but we shall see how that decision goes.
Billy G, the real Captain America
In terms of USA Hockey, you might not realize it Bill Guerin is arguably the most important figure around these days. Guerin has been named the GM for the next two big events for the NHL’s four-team tournament in 2025 and the 2026 Olympics. The Americans should be loaded for bear with excellent chances to win either or both events with a talent pool like this:
Who will play for Team USA in the 2026 Olympics?— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) February 3, 2024
Here's your predicted roster. pic.twitter.com/z4nrb69F5F
One also has to wonder what the next round of high-level competition will mean for Mike Sullivan. Sullivan was selected to coach the USA in the 2022 Olympics, prior to the NHL and NHLPA backing out of the event. It’s not like any American coaches have passed him since then, will Sully be getting the call when the NHL finally goes back to these tournaments? It’s largely up to Guerin, which probably bodes well.
And now for the Penguins
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Reilly Smith - Evgeni Malkin - Drew O’Connor
Rickard Rakell - Lars Eller - Jesse Puljujarvi
Jansen Harkins - Colin White - Jeff Carter
Marcus Pettersson / Kris Letang
Ryan Graves / Erik Karlsson
P.O. Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic
Potential Scratch: Noel Acciari (concussion), John Ludvig
IR: Matt Nieto (out from knee surgery until March)
—Evgeni Malkin was absent for practice yesterday, being termed a “maintenance day” that suggests he should be able to play tonight.Ludvig skated as a placeholder in Malkin’s spot.
—The news wasn’t as kind for Noel Acciari, who officially has been diagnosed with a concussion. The team announced will not play for at least today and tomorrow on this short road trip. The opening created calls the number of Colin White, who bumped into Acciari’s usual spot on the fourth line.
—The Pens have an interesting goalie usage situation of their own for this game. Jarry is coming off a 23-save shutout, but Pittsburgh plays again tomorrow night against that same team in Winnipeg that he mastered. Usually the starter takes night one on the b-2-b but there would be some logic in saving Jarry for the Jets rematch. Nedeljkovic has played well enough that he could be trusted in either spot.
Jarry gunning for team shutout record?
Since it’s Fleury night and all, one of his team records might just be in jeopardy these days in the form of single season shutouts. Fleury got 10, but Jarry already has six (in 32 starts!) this season.
From the team:
Tristan Jarry was perfect on Tuesday night against Winnipeg, stopping all 23 shots he faced to notch his league-leading sixth shutout of the season. There have only been two instances in franchise history where a goaltender recorded more shutouts in a single season:
Goaltender Season Shutouts
Marc-Andre Fleury 2014-15 10
Tom Barrasso 1997-98 7
Tristan Jarry 2023-24 6
Les Binkley 1967-68 6
Johan Hedberg 2001-02 6
Jarry conceivably could/should start 20+ more of the Pens’ remaining 35 games this season. Shutouts are tough, but amazingly enough almost half of his wins this year (six of 14) have been by blanking opponents. It couldn’t be great odds to get 5+ more shutouts this year, but then again, he’s already been putting that level up so far, so he just might have a shot at it.
Then again, it’s probably unlikely, double-digit shutouts is a rare feat. No goalie in the NHL since Fleury in ‘15 has accomplished it. Only nine times has a goalie had a season of even 8+ shutouts since then, with only one (Jakob Markstrom, 8, 2021-22) coming since the pandemic.