Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (7-1-0)
When: Tonight, 7:30PM EST/5:30PM MDT
Your Starting Goalies: COL – JS Giguere (2-0-0), PIT – MA Fleury (7-0-0)
The Dangermen: Leading the charge is none other than the NHL’s leading scorer and resident face of the league, Sidney Crosby. This matchup is interesting not only because Crosby is dynamic and without a doubt the best player in the world when he’s on the ice, but he and Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon have a bit of a connection. Aside from being from the same town in Nova Scotia, the two were training partners during the summer. Crosby will no doubt look to teach the kid a thing or two tonight. He has an absurd 7 goals and 17 points through the first 8 games of the season. That’s on pace for 174 points! (/hyperbole)
Turns out, Crosby isn’t the only wearing black and gold to watch. Even without high-scoring winger James Neal, currently on injured reserve, the Penguins are still a very good offensive team.
Lining up next to Crosby is last year’s big surprise, winger Chris Kunitz. He’d been progressing nicely since coming to Pittsburgh in 2008/09, increasing his point totals (as well as games played) every season before having a fine 22-goal, 52-point season in last year’s shortened year. This year, he’s in a logjam right at the tail end of the top ten in scoring with 10 points so far. He and Crosby seem to have developed a nice chemistry and playing with the best player in the world has its positive effects.
Behind them? Oh, only a Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner in Evgeni Malkin. He struggled with injury last season, only seeing 31 games following his Hart Trophy winning 2011/12 season where he scored 50 goals and 109 points. He’s “struggling” a bit this season, but still has 9 points in his first 8 games. He’s big, talented, and dynamic; the kind of guy that takes over games at will. If he gets going at full steam, he and Crosby are unstoppable.
Even with Neal out, the Pens are getting offense from just about everywhere, with 15 players having multiple points so far, 11 having at least 3 or more. Pascal Dupuis, linemate of Crosby and Kunitz, is having himself a nice little season so far with 9 points so far. He’s been a consummate linemate of Crosby’s, so the chemistry is there. He’s the hard-worker who’s willing to go into the muck to gain possession.
There’s also Jussi Jokinen and Brandon Sutter to worry about, not to mention Craig Adams who’s got 3 goals through the team’s first 8 games. This is a deep, deep team even without Neal and one that is going to put up goals whether you like it or not. This is sure to be a huge test for the Avalanche defense.
The Defenders: This group doesn’t necessarily get the credit it deserves, but right now, the Penguins are in the top ten in goals against per game and shots allowed per game.
Leading the way as a physical presence is Brooks Orpik, the veteran of the group and key defensive catalyst of the last Penguins Cup team. He’s big, smart, talented, and will mash you if you’re unlucky enough to get caught near the boards with him around.
Joining him on the top pairing is Paul Martin. Martin went from much-maligned his first two seasons in Pittsburgh to putting together a very good season last year, taking on a featured role on defense will posting 6 goals and 23 points in just 34 games (his single-season high is 27 points the year prior and it took him 73 games to do that). Also consider: those 6 goals are more than he’d collected in his first 150 games as a Penguin (5).
Right now, Matt Niskanen, who came over in the James Neal trade with Dallas, is leading the charge offensively from the back end with 6 points through the first 8 games. He and familiar face Rob Scuderi are the smart, mobile tandem that can do some damage from the point.
The wild card right now is youngster Olli Maatta. The Penguins elected to not send him back to his junior squad, instead giving him roughly 15 minutes per night as he’s collected a goal and 2 assists through 8 games. It’ll be interested to see how he does over the course of a full season but he looks good to date.
Puck Stoppers Inc.: How is it possible that a guy with a 7-0-0 record, a 1.84 GAA, and a .930 save percentage could have any semblance of question marks? You’ve clearly never met Marc-Andre Fleury.
His numbers have been outstanding thus far, but after giving up a goal from center ice on a fluky bounce to Vancouver on Saturday, the questions no doubt started swirling again. The man has a Stanley Cup championship and another Finals appearance under his belt, but he can’t seem to elude the questions.
Granted, it’s not without merit. When he’s on, he’s on but when things are going less than stellar, he’s a threat to give up goals from anywhere at any time. It got so bad last year that the Penguins went to backup Tomas Vokoun in the playoffs.
So far, it looks like the Pens are getting the best out of their Quebecois netminder, but it’ll be interesting to see if it stays that way as the year goes on.
How the Avs match up: I just don’t know, man. The Avalanche beat the teams they’re supposed to, but the two teams that are legitimately good (Red Wings/Bruins), the Avalanche struggled with. The Bruins were the better team in that game, but JS Giguere (starting tonight) stole that one. And against Detroit, they struggled with Detroit’s puck-possession game en route to their first loss of the season.
Their speed is good enough to be a problem for anyone, but they need to come out flying. If they can keep the pressure in the Pittsburgh zone, it hampers the ability of those high-flying forwards leading the charge for the Penguins.
Another thing: STAY OUT OF THE DAMN BOX. The Penguins power play is the second best in the game right now; they’re probably going to get theirs if you give them the chance.
Key Matchup: Avs penalty kill vs Penguins power play
Cower in fear if: The Avs don’t have an answer for the deep Pens forward unit.
Giguere isn’t as magical as he was against Boston.
Fleury is on his game.
Laugh maniacally if: Varlamov Giguere plays his nards off. (this may just stay here forever and ever)
The defense does enough to keep the Pens forwards in check.
Duche/O’Reilly/Downie are creating havoc on a regular basis.
Silly predictions: Giguere looks human again; MacKinnon has his worst game to date; Andre Benoit (Balls) finally gets his first goal; Crosby is limited to just a point; Fleury looks good aside from one or two really iffy saves.
Final: 4-3 Penguins
The Avalanche return home to play the Hurricanes on Friday night. To see this game and others during the season, get your Colorado Avalanche tickets here.