Around the League
The Pittsburgh Penguins eked out a 2-1 win over the Blue Jackets on Friday to become the second Eastern Conference team to secure a spot in the spring classic. Beau Bennett returned a hero after a 50-game absence and showed he was suffering no ill effects from a wrist injury, scoring the eventual game-winning goal in the third period while Marc-Andre Fleury made 35 saves for the win.
Jarmo Kekalainen’s Blue Jackets are a respectable team (thanks to Ryan Johansen’s breakout), and if things go well, the franchise will make the playoffs for just the second time in its 14-year history. The Penguins played the Kings the night before, but it's still a little disconcerting they weren’t able to dispatch a wild card team with relative ease. The Bruins will pose a much more difficult challenge in the playoffs, and all roads to the Stanley Cup Final will have to go through The Hub at some point. The loss of Pascal Dupuis will really hurt. Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin and Kris Letang will play at less than 100 percent in the playoffs, if at all.
They haven’t been very consistent either, winning just two of their past six, and prior to that slump lost back-to-back games against the dreaded Flyers, who take the crown as Pennsylvania’s hockey kings with a 3-1 edge in the season series. Can these birds take flight with so much baggage?
You can never count out a team that employs the world’s best player, but the Penguins seem to become more vulnerable year after year, especially this season. The usual questions remain – from Crosby’s health to Malkin’s commitment to playing both ends of the ice to whether Flower will wilt or bloom this spring – but now there’s more.
Jordan Staal was a better fit in Pittsburgh than Brandon Sutter, which is a pretty big problem because the rest of the Penguins’ bottom six isn’t particularly strong, even with Marcel Goc. Olli Maatta, who has been one of Pittsburgh’s best defenders, is clearly fatigued and will end up playing roughly 100 games this season as a 19-year-old rookie (that's a lot).
It also doesn’t feel like Dan Bylsma, the energetic young coach who brings a lot of enthusiasm to the dressing room, has learned much over the past three years. Granted, the Penguins don’t really need to change what they do because they’re already quite successful at winning hockey games, but when the going gets tough Bylsma never makes the proper in-game adjustments to help right the ship during emergencies. By now, everyone knows the Penguins can be knocked off their game rather easily (watch how the Islanders play them), and once they lose focus and James Neal does something dumb (always a chance every night), the wheels come flying off.
And this goes way back, to 2011 when the Pens lose three straight to Tampa Bay in the quarterfinals, before repeating the same thing in 2012 against the Flyers and then getting manhandled by the Bruins in a sweep last year. As head coach of Team USA, Bylsma’s squad blitzed through the first four Olympic games, scoring 20 goals in the process, but ended up playing a passive, counter-attacking style against Canada and Finland, both of which resulted in embarrassing shutout losses.
Offense: Beyond Crosby, Kunitz and Malkin, there are quite a few question marks. Jussi Jokinen and Lee Stempniak may be able to add some offense in a pinch, but the team has been relying on Jayson Megna and Brian Gibbons (just 62 games of NHL experience between them) for offense as well. Bennett’s health and effectiveness as a sniper will be tested in the playoffs as he returns from an injury, and there’s beyond a good chance that Neal will do a little extracurricular head hunting and find himself getting suspended, or worse, beat up by someone a lot bigger. Few teams can hold off this offense, and outside of the Bruins, only the Rangers and Red Wings have deep enough blue lines (assuming everyone is healthy) to keep the Pens’ attack at bay.
Defense: The Penguins don’t trust Simon Despres, but they’re forced to play him with Olli Maatta entering a slump at a bad time with Paul Martin and Kris Letang still on the shelf. Matt Niskanen has proven that he can handle a heavy workload, but he’s not a top defensemen by any stretch of the imagination. Having a healthy Brooks Orpik alone isn’t good enough, because between him, Deryk Engelland, Robert Bortuzzo and Rob Scuderi, no one can really move the puck. Martin’s health has been an issue all year, and every hit on Letang seems to be the last one he’ll ever take. The defense isn’t particularly mobile at the moment, and there’s no sense trusting Bylsma to come up with a viable solution on his feet.
Goaltending: Fleury has to be great and steal a few games if the Pens want to go deep. Even if he falters, it’s hard to see Bylsma go to Jeff Zatkoff. Furthermore, if Tomas Vokoun returns, he’s an unknown quantity because he hasn’t played all season. Fleury is the Pens’ only option, and for most people, that’s not exactly a comforting thought.
Outlook: Are you a glass half full or half empty type of person? It’s hard to see the Pens beat the Bruins, and there’s always a chance the Pens could get upset in the first two rounds. Statistically, they’re one of the best teams in the league, ranking fifth in goals scored per game, seventh in goals against per game, second on the power play and fourth on the penalty kill. Interestingly enough, the Pens never seem to have players who rank at the top in advanced statistics. Despite leading the league in scoring and staying healthy, Crosby’s advanced statistics suggest he was a much more effective player the previous two seasons. What that means for this year’s playoffs remains to be seen, but this looks like a good year to pick a few upsets in the opening round.
Projected Goalie Starters (all times Eastern)
For updates on the projected goalies later in the day, check our Projected Goalies Grid
Boston Bruins (Tuukka Rask) at Washington Capitals (Jaroslav Halak), 12:30 PM
San Jose Sharks (Antti Niemi) at Colorado Avalanche (Semyon Varlamov*), 3:00 PM
Tampa Bay Lightning (Ben Bishop) at Buffalo Sabres (Nathan Lieuwen), 7:00 PM
Detroit Red Wings (Jimmy Howard*) at Toronto Maple Leafs (James Reimer), 7:00 PM
Montreal Canadiens (Carey Price) at Florida Panthers (Dan Ellis*), 7:00 PM
New Jersey Devils (Cory Schneider*) at New York Islanders (Evgeni Nabokov), 7:00 PM
Columbus Blue Jackets (Sergei Bobrovsky) at Carolina Hurricanes (Cam Ward), 7:00 PM
Dallas Stars (Tim Thomas) at St. Louis Blues (Ryan Miller*), 8:00 PM
Minnesota Wild (Darcy Kuemper) at Phoenix Coyotes (Mike Smith), 9:00 PM
Anaheim Ducks (Frederik Andersen) at Vancouver Canucks (Eddie Lack), 10:00 PM
Winnipeg Jets (Ondrej Pavelec) at Los Angeles Kings (Jonathan Quick), 10:00 PM
* = confirmed as starter
Injury News For Teams Playing Saturday
Adam McQuaid, D – (groin/hip) will not play Saturday.
Dennis Seidenberg, D – (torn ACL/MCL) out indefinitely.
Brooks Laich, C - (groin) no return date set.
Mikhail Grabovski, C - (ankle) will not play.
Jack Hillen, D - (upper body) questionable for Saturday.
Aaron Volpatti, LW - (left shoulder) practicing, but doubtful for Saturday.
San Jose Sharks
Raffi Torres, RW - (soreness) will not play.
Adam Burish, RW - (hand) out indefinitely.
Tomas Hertl, LW - (knee) not skating at full speed, no return date set.
P.A. Parenteau, RW – (right MCL) likely out for the season.
Alex Tanguay, LW – (knee surgery) out for the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Brian Lee, D - (knee) out indefinitely.
Zenon Konopka, C - (back) will not play Saturday.
Chris Stewart, RW - (ankle) unlikely to return this season.
Michal Neuvirth, G - (lower body) will not dress Saturday.
Jhonas Enroth, G – (leg) will not dress Saturday.
Torrey Mitchell, LW - (undisclosed) did not play Thursday, unlikely to play Sautrday.
Tyler Myers, D - (upper body) will not play Saturday.
Ville Leino, LW - (illness) will not play Saturday.
Alexander Sulzer, D - (upper body) doubtful for Saturday.
Detroit Red Wings
Dan Cleary, RW - (knee) out indefinitely.
Stephen Weiss, C – (hernia) likely out for the season.
Pavel Datsyuk, C - (knee) did not skate Thursday, unlikely to play Saturday.
Henrik Zetterberg, C - (back) out for the regular season.
Justin Abdelkader, LW - (leg) expected to return next week.
Mikael Samuelsson, RW - (shoulder) will not play Saturday.
Jonathan Ericsson, D - (finger) out 4-6 weeks.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Paul Ranger, D - (neck/head) did not play Friday, doubtful for Saturday.
Travis Moen, LW - (concussion) did not travel, will not play.
Josh Gorges, D – (hand) no return date set.
Brandon Prust, LW - (upper body) out for the season.
Dale Weise, RW – (wrist) out 2-3 weeks.
Alex Petrovic, D – (upper body) placed on IR.
Jonathan Huberdeau, LW - (upper body) doubtful for Saturday.
Roberto Luongo, G – (upper body) Ellis slated to start.
Tomas Kopecky, RW – (concussion) out indefinitely.
Aleksander Barkov, C - (knee) out indefinitely.
Tom Gilbert, D – (hernia) out for the season.
New Jersey Devils
Tim Sestito, C - (head) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Anton Volchenkov, D - (lower body) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Bryce Salvador, D - (groin) will not play Saturday.
New York Islanders
Lubomir Visnovsky, D – (concussion) suffered symptoms, out indefinitely.
Kyle Okposo, RW - (lower body) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Michael Grabner, RW – (concussion) out indefinitely.
John Tavares, C – (torn MCL) out for the season.
Brian Strait, D – (broken hand) no return date set.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Sergei Bobrovsky, G – (illness) game-time decision for Saturday.
Ryan Murray, D - (lower body) doubtful for Saturday.
Joni Pitkanen, D - (heel) out for the season.
Erik Cole, RW - (upper body) did not play Friday, doubtful for Saturday.
Rich Peverley, RW – (heart) out indefinitely.
St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW – (right hand surgery) no return date set.
Keith Ballard, D - (groin) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Josh Harding, G - (illness) likely out for the season.
Jason Zucker, LW – (quad tendon) out indefinitely.
Clayton Stoner, D – (lower body) week-to-week, doubtful for Saturday.
Niklas Backstrom, G - (abdomen) out for the season.
David Moss, RW – (lower body) left Thursday’s game, doubtful for Saturday.
David Schlemko, D - (lower body) did not play Thursday, questionable for Saturday.
Mike Smith, G - (lower body) doubtful for Saturday.
Mark Fistric, D – (lower body) game-time decision for Saturday.
Sheldon Souray, D – (wrist surgery) out for the season.
Cam Fowler, D – (sprained MCL) no return date set.
Henrik Sedin, C - (leg) game-time decision for Saturday.
Andrew Alberts, D - (concussion) no return date set.
Mike Santorelli, C - (shoulder) out for the season.
Chris Tanev, D – (finger) out for the season.
Chris Thorburn, RW – (fractured foot) out indefinitely.
Zach Bogosian, D - (upper body) did not play Thursday, doutbful for Saturday.
James Wright, LW – (ankle sprain) out indefinitely.
Grant Clitsome, D – (back surgery) out for the season.
Mark Scheifele, C - (knee) no return date set.
Los Angeles Kings
Colin Fraser, C – (hand) out 4-6 weeks.
Michael Cammalleri, LW, CGY – In case you haven’t noticed, Cammalleri has a huge chip on his shoulder. After getting his seven-game point streak snapped against San Jose and Anaheim, Cammalleri responded Friday night with a goal and assist in a 4-3 win over the Rangers. The sniper is a notoriously streaky scorer and plays his best when a) his contract is expiring, or b) full of spite because other teams didn’t want him at the trade deadline. It’s both this time, so start him whenever you can for the rest of the season.
Tomas Tatar, LW, DET – The Red Wings are fighting for a wild card spot and the talented Slovak winger is doing his best to help them get there. Though the team has lost three straight, Tatar is on a tear with six points in his past three games. He’s a big part of Detroit’s future, having spent what seemed like eternity in the AHL honing his craft. He’s ready and he’s contributing and there’s certainly more to come.
Jakub Voracek, RW, PHI – It’s been a tough year in Philadelphia, but nothing comes easy in the City of Brotherly Love. Voracek has five points in his past five games as the Flyers attempt to lock up a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. Head coach Craig Berube continues to ticker with the lines, but with back-to-back 20-goal seasons, Voracek is entrenched in the Flyers’ top six. He has 14 points in 13 games played in March.
Jimmy Howard, G, DET – What a terrible time for Howard to get cold. His inclusion to Team USA over Ben Bishop remains a head scratcher for me, and over the past three games (all losses), Howard has allowed 12 goals. His 2.73 GAA and .909 save percentage are both below average and you wonder how long it’ll take for Mike Babcock to show a little more confidence in either Jonas Gustavsson or Petr Mrazek, both of whom are quite capable as well.
Martin St. Louis, RW, NYR – The former Lightning captain has gone pointless in five games and has scored just three assists in 12 games with the Rangers. It’s not like St. Louis is playing poorly, but as Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said, it’ll take some time getting used to New York. The good news is that the Rangers are winning games, which means there’s less pressure on St. Louis to produce. There’s little doubt that the immensely prideful player will deliver in the playoffs because few push themselves harder than him, but right now the hard work just isn’t showing.
Brandon Saad, LW, CHI – Before Saad gets too excited and becomes an overzealous mentor to star prospect Teuvo Teravainen, he has to worry about his own play first. Over his past four games, Saad has been held without a point and posted a minus-5 rating in that span. The big power forward has just two goals over the past two months, and his shooting percentage in March is a paltry three percent.
Teuvo Teravainen, C, CHI – Make no mistake, the 18th overall pick from 2012 is being thrown into the fire right away, not unlike many other highly-touted rookies who make their NHL debuts at this time of the year. He has yet to register a point in two games, but head coach Joel Quenneville likes what he sees, which is always a good sign, and the Blackhawks will ensure Teravainen plays against easy competition. Patrick Kane remains sidelined, and the ultra-talented Teravainen has a similar skillset and will be featured on the power play prominently. He’s a young player worth taking the risk for a short but potentially big payoff. Some scouts believe Teravainen will be a winger in the NHL, but for now he’s playing center so if he’s not scoring at least some faceoff wins will be available.