Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They are the two leaders, and two best players of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But, injuries have kept both stars in Pittsburgh and both will be sitting out tonight's game against our hometown team. So one sees that with both guys out of the Pens lineup, and they would say, "We should win easily." Wrong. Whatever you do tomorrow night, don't think the Pens will go down so easy.
The Pens have played 7 games on the young season. Crosby, obviously, has played none. Malkin, has played in 3 games (1G-3A), but has missed the last four as he continues to battle a knee injury. Despite their absences, the Pens come in to St. Paul with the second most goals scored in the NHL (19, Colorado has 20). They have been getting outstanding production from forwards Jordan Staal (2G-3A), James Neal (5G-1A), and defenseman Kris Letang (1G-6A) in the absence of their star forwards.
Perhaps, the only weakness on this team right now, is their defense. With the exception of Letang, the remaining 5 Pens defenseman have played abysmally. Paul Martin (U of M alum), Matt Niskanen (UMD alum), Zybnek Michalek, Deryk Engelland, and Ben Lovejoy have combined to put up a line of 2G-3A and a +/- of -11. Folks, thats an awful line from your remaining 5 defenseman. So if the Wild want to come out of tonight's game with a pair of points, they got to attack the weak Pittsburgh defense.
Mike Yeo's philosophy, as I understand it, is forwards get in behind the defense and create havoc while defenseman give an occasional help down low (If you are a defenseman who doesn't score, helping out down low is a minimal thing for you). If the Wild can keep out of the box, get their line changes in order, get a solid start from Nik Backstrom, and most importantly get behind the defense, they should be able to get those two points from Pittsburgh tonight. Also keep in mind, Pittsburgh is coming off a tough 2-1 loss in Winnipeg yesterday. So they will not be as fresh as the Wild. Also, they used their #1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury last night, so I would expect backup Brent Johnson (Don't mess with him!) to get the nod between the pipes. And he has played very well so far this season for the Pens, so don't dismiss him as well.
For me, this will be a very telling game for the hometown squad. They are coming off a tough 3-2 OT loss to Detroit on Saturday. They also have won just 2 out of the first five games, but they have come away with at least a point in 4 of the first five games (I was planning on doing a post on how this was a good sign, but my friends at First Round Bust beat me to it. Haha). They also are in the middle of a tough stretch of games. So I will look for them to have a bit more jump in their step as they play in the friendly confines of Xcel Energy Center once again before hitting the road to division rivals Vancouver and Edmonton. You also have the nationally televised game tomorrow night, so hopefully they can put on a good show for the rest of the NHL. With all those variables going into this, I would like to see the team get their issues straightened out and earn a victory over one of the NHL's elite teams.
Don't expect a blowout Wild victory just because the Pens aren't at 100%. If they win, it will have to be a full 60 minute, hard fought effort. Otherwise, the Pens will bounce any chance you give them. Because despite the absences of their star players, this is still a very good team.
UPDATE (3:00 PM)-The NHL just announced that Kris Letang is receiving a two game suspension for a boarding penalty he took last night against Winnipeg. The Pens have called up Brian Strait to replace Letang for tonights game.