What To Watch For: Pens vs. Hurricanes
Monday, 12.26.2011 / 7:00 AM ET / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
PENGUINS (20-11-4) vs. HURRICANES (12-19-6)
WHEN: Dec. 27, 2011 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM
With their 4-2 win over New Jersey on Monday, the Carolina Hurricanes have now won two straight games and have earned points in six of their last eight contests under new head coach Kirk Muller. Establishing some level of consistency is a step in the right direction for the Hurricanes, who rank second-to-last in the Eastern Conference with 30 points. And what’s perhaps even more positive is that Carolina has been doing this without both teenage sensation Jeff Skinner and workhorse defenseman Joni Pitkanen as they recover from concussions.
Skinner, who had been the Hurricanes’ best player and most consistent producer with a team-leading 24 points until sustaining his injury, has missed the last seven games while Pitkanen, who leads the team in minutes per game and ranks second in scoring among Hurricanes defensemen, has sat out the last eight contests. In addition, veteran backup Brian Boucher is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury sustained in practice Dec. 5 – meaning starter Cam Ward has gotten the nod for nine straight games.
One of the bright spots for the Hurricanes lately has been Finnish forward Tuomo Ruutu, who has four goals and six points in his last five games – including the overtime winner against the Senators on Dec. 23 to give his team a much-needed two points heading into the holiday break. Ruutu, who overtook Skinner for the team lead with 13 goals, has been going to the front of the net and shooting the puck a lot more over his five-game point stretch – including a season-high six shots on Dec. 15, a 4-3 win over Vancouver.
Recent call-up Drayson Bowman, who’s skated just seven games with Carolina this season and is currently playing wing on the top line with Eric Staal and Chad LaRose, had two goals in that game. In addition, Andreas Nodl, acquired off waivers from Philadelphia on Nov. 29, has goals in consecutive games (and points in three straight games) while playing on the fourth line. But the Hurricanes still aren’t getting the production from captain Staal that they’re accustomed to receiving.
There will be a new face on Carolina’s blue line that the Penguins haven’t seen in their previous two meetings – defenseman Jaroslav Spacek. The Hurricanes sent Tomas Kaberle to Montreal in exchange for Spacek, who’s playing alongside youngster Justin Faulk on the third D pairing.
PENGUINS: James Neal extended his point streak to seven games with a goal against Winnipeg on Dec. 23, which ties his season-long stretch from Oct. 27-Nov. 15. Neal has six goals over that stretch, giving him a total of 20 for the season – which ties for second in the NHL. It also means that Neal, 24, has scored at least 20 goals in each of his first four NHL seasons. The power forward has done most of his goal-scoring damage at CONSOL Energy Center, tallying 12 goals and 17 points in 15 games. Neal has scored at least one goal in 11 of the 15 games and has at least one point in 13 of 15 games.
HURRICANES: Yes, Eric Staal – who’s scored at least 29 goals in five of his six NHL seasons – is struggling to produce at his usual pace this year with just five tallies through 37 games. But the ‘Canes captain is publicly putting pressure on himself to turn his game around and help lift his team out of the funk they’re in. And if anyone can do it, he’d be a safe bet to do so. Staal plays a huge role for Carolina regardless of his point output, as he ranks eighth among NHL forwards in ice time per game (21:21 minutes), leads the Hurricanes with 129 shots and tends to do well against the Penguins, as he’s got 30 points (13G-17A) in 29 career games against Pittsburgh.
It's unclear as of now if Cam Ward will get the nod on Tuesday or if backup Justin Peters will get the call. As of Monday Peters, 25, had appeared in 21 career NHL games. He was 6-6-1 in 14 games with Charlotte of the American Hockey League this season and was named the Reeobk/AHL Goaltender of the Month for November 2011 after posting a 5-1-1 record with a 1.63 GAA and a .949 save percentage in seven appearances.
Will it be Cam Ward (left) or Justin Peters (right) who gets the call Tuesday in Pittsburgh?
One area the Hurricanes have thrived in this season has been scoring shorthanded, as they rank tied for first in the NHL with seven shorthanded goals – matching the same total they notched all of last season. Brandon Sutter is tied for second in the NHL with three shorthanded goals while Patrick Dwyer is tied for third in the NHL with two shorthanded goals.
Despite that, the Hurricanes have the league’s fifth-worst penalty kill that’s clicking at a 78.8-percent success rate. Hopefully that will improve under Muller, who helped Montreal’s PK finish in top half of the NHL in each of his five seasons with the Canadiens, including a seventh-place ranking in 2010- 11 and a perfect 21-for-21 in the 2011 playoffs.
The Hurricanes have struggled to rally from deficits this season. Carolina is just 1-11 when trailing after one period and hasn’t won a game (0-12-2) when trailing after two.
Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland was suspended for three games by the NHL for his hit on Marcus Kruger on Dec. 20. Engelland missed the Dec. 23 game at Winnipeg and will also be out of the lineup Dec. 27 vs. Carolina and Dec. 29 vs. Philadelphia. He will be eligible to return Dec. 31 at New Jersey.
D Robert Bortuzzo, concussion-like symptoms
C Sidney Crosby, undisclosed
F Dustin Jeffrey, knee
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion
D Paul Martin, lower body
F Richard Park, fractured foot
G Brian Boucher, lower body
D Joni Pitkanen, concussion
F Jeff Skinner, concussion
F Tim Brent, upper body