It’s been the same old story in Pittsburgh this year. No Crosby, no Staal, no problem, as the Penguins have an impressive 8-3-3 record, and their 19 points have them tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks for first place in the NHL. Personally, I’m not sure how this team isn’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year, assuming Sidney Crosby returns, and it appears he may be on the verge of doing that soon. Fortunately for the Kings, he won’t be back tonight, and Jordan Staal may not be playing either, but even without two of their stars, the Penguins are still a very good, well-coached team, that cruised to the fourth seed in the East last year despite being without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and once again it appears that they’re going to be just fine while they wait for their stars to get healthy.
Coincidentally, the last time the Penguins played at Staples Center was exactly two years ago to this date. That gamed ended up being a 5-2 win for the Kings, and after being shutout in each of their last two home games and scoring a combined one goal overall in their last three home games, another 5-2 victory over the first-place Pens would be just what the doctor ordered for the slumping Kings, losers of three straight and four of their last five games, as Jonathan Quick coming back down to Earth has really put the spotlight on the Kings’ offensive struggles, as they’re no longer winning despite their lack of offense.
However, taking down Pittsburgh will be no easy task. The Penguins are a strong team in all areas. They’re scoring an average of 2.86 goals per game, which ranks then seventh in the league. They’re allowing only 2.14 goals against per game, which ranks them fourth in the league. Their power play is humming along at a 21.8% success rate, the sixth best in the league, and their penalty kill is a ridiculous 92.5%, the second best in the league. And yes, they’re doing all of this without the best player in the world. In my opinion, the Penguins have to be considered the favourite once Crosby returns. Heck, they’re a favourite without him.
Offensively, the Penguins have been led by James Neal, a mid-season trade acquisition from Dallas last year who after initially struggling in Pittsburgh, has nine goals and four assists in 14 games this year. Evgeni Malkin has once again had some injuries to deal with, but in the seven games that he’s actually played this year, the 2008/2009 Art Ross, Conn Smythe, and Stanley Cup winner has four goals and six assists. Jordan Staal, who has missed the last two games, had six goals and three assists in his first 12 games and will be a game-time decision tonight. Chris Kunitz has four goals and three assists in fourteen games this year, while Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis are having strong starts to their year, with four goals and four assists for Cooke so far, and three goals and six assists for Dupuis. Making up the rest of the Penguins up front, they have Steve Sullivan, Aaron Asham, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey, Mark Letestu, Steve MacIntyre, Richard Park, and Joe Vitale to choose from. Tyler Kennedy is on the injured reserve.
On the back end, Kris Letang is having an another amazing season so far, with 12 points in 12 games. There isn’t a whole lot behind him on the Penguins blue line right now though. Deryk Engelland, Brooks Orpik, and a pair of recently recalled defenseman from the AHL in veteran journeyman Alexandre Picard and prospect Robert Bortuzzo could make up four of the last spots on the Penguins defense corps, while Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen will be game-time decisions. It has not been confirmed who would come out of the lineup if both can play, and I don’t know what they’ll do if neither can play. I guess they’ll have to dress a forward on the blue line. Defensemen Ben Lovejoy, Zbynek Michalek, and Brian Strait are on the injured reserve.
In goal, it will be 2003 first-overall draft pick and 2009 Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been very strong this season with a 7-2-1 record to go along with a 1.96 GAA, a .932 Sv% and a shutout. He will be backed up by veteran Brent Johnson.
For the Kings, they have made some changes to their bottom-six, as Kevin Westgarth replaces Trevor Lewis in the lineup. Because of the physical presence and agitators that the Penguins have, Terry Murray felt the need for Westgarth’s presence tonight, and Lewis was the odd-man out, but Murray also says that he hasn’t been pleased with Lewis’s play as of late. Lewis will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season, and doesn’t have a point in 12 games. Brad Richardson moves down to the fourth line to centre Westgarth and Kyle Clifford, while Ethan Moreau moves up to the right of Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll on the third line. The top two lines of Anze Kopitar between Simon Gagne and Justin Williams, and Mike Richards between Scott Parse and Dustin Brown remain intact. Their will be no changes on the blue line, with Willie Mitchell paired with Drew Doughty, Rob Scuderi with Jack Johnson, and Alec Martinez with Matt Greene. Jonathan Quick will remain in goal.
So, it doesn’t get any easier for the Kings, as they are forced to try and right the ship against one of the NHL’s elite teams. Can the Kings pull of a shocker and ignite the offense en route to taking down one of the beasts of the East, or will the Penguins keep the Kings’ misery going?