On a Wednesday night in the NHL, there should be a lot of excitement since two great and old rivals meet up to face off again. The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins will clash and get valuable points in the Eastern conference, and their race for a playoff spot.
In December, the Penguins got a new coach in Mike Sullivan. But his tenure with Pittsburgh has not gon the way everyone expected and his team had a pretty bad start in December. Boston was a signidicant player in that struggle late last year.
But recently, Pittsburgh has gotten a lot better especially now that their captain has gotten his scoring touch back. Even with Evgeni Malkin out and missing for most of this month they managed to win. He’ll probably stay out at a minimum, one more game as the Penguins will try to get a rare win over the Bruins tomorrrow night.
Sullivan and his Pens lost the first four games under him right after he took over from Mike Johnston who was fired on Dec. 12. Those losses included a home-and-home sweep by Boston where the Pens were brutally outscored 9-2. Pittsburgh who is 30-20-8 has had a better second hald, and is 15-6-5 since that skid. They’ve gone 9-3-1 in their past 13 games and they look to be on the up and up.
“We’re a very different team today than we were then,” Sullivan told the team’s official website. “Our mindset has changed. We’ve evolved.”
The Penguins have shown grit and improved to 3-0-1 in their last four road games, with a 4-3 win in Buffalo on Sunday night. That was the ninth consecutive game they played without Malkin. Other players have picked up the slack, Pens rookie Scott Wilson scored for three straight games after not getting even one in his first 12.
Malkin was back on the ice and had his first practice on Tuesday after suffering a lower-body injury on Feb. 2. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer, but instead of collecting points he’s been ruled out of Wednesday’s game. Center Nick Bonino has also been out with a hand injury, but he also was in practice on Tuesday after being out since Jan. 12.
“It’s a big step for them to join the team,” Sullivan said.
Their defenseman Ben Lovejoy, is still expected to be out “long term” due to an upper-body injury which he suffered in a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay this past Saturday.
So Pittsburgh will be trying to overcome their short-handed and battered lineup. If they win tomorrow night, it will be their third win in 13 games against Boston, a bad stretch that all started with a sweep in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. The Bruins who are 32-22-6, are also 5-0-1 in the past six home match ups, including the playoffs. And they recently won 3-0 on Dec. 16 with Tuukka Rask stopping all 34 shots.
Boston’s Rask has started each of Boston’s last 12 games against Pittsburgh, and has gone 10-1-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average, which will be hard for the Pens to crack.
But Boston without Rask has had a harder time keeping opponents off the scoreboard when they went through a 1-3-1 slump at home, giving up 26 goals. Their backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson allowed five goals in a 6-4 defeat to Columbus on Monday, so if he starts tonight the Bruins might not be as confident.
That loss was the Bruins’ first home game since their 9-2 loss to Los Angeles on Feb. 9, which was the most goals they’ve allowed in eight seasons. Boston is 12-15-3 at home and 20-7-3 on the road, so their home record needs to improve.
“Whatever curse we have at home, we can’t seem to find our energy or get the tempo of our game up,” defenseman Joe Morrow said. “It has to change sooner than later. We don’t have that much time left in the season to be able to turn it around. It’s pretty unacceptable.”
Their star players will have to pick up the slack. Players like Patrice Bergeron who doesn’t have a point in five straight home games despite leading the team with 50 will need to produce. He scored twice in a 6-2 victory in Pittsburgh on Dec. 18 so he should be a difference maker.
Brad Marchand has not faired so well, he has only one goal in his past 17 regular-season matchups against Pittsburgh. But in other games he has scored 15 goals in his last 16 contests overall. Loui Eriksson has two on Monday which gave him seven goals in the past seven games.
Bruins’ Ryan Spooner has had six points of his career-high 40 points in this season’s two meetings against the Pens, so he might feel lucky again.
Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang has had no points in those matchups. And has only collected three points in his last 10 games against the Bruins, and surprisingly, that includes the playoffs. Former Bruin and first round draft pick, Phil Kessel doesn’t have a point in three straight against Boston and suffers an inability to play there, but he has four goals in Pittsburgh’s last five games, so he could break out against them.
We think the Bruins are just too tough to beat at home and that they will make a special effort against their rivals to send them home packing again with no points in their pockets.