What to Watch For: Pens vs. Stars
Tuesday, 02.28.2012 / 6:00 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: Feb. 29, 2012 - 7:30 pm | WHERE: American Airlines Center
WATCH: NBC Sports Network | LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM
A day before Monday’s NHL trade deadline, the Dallas Stars rallied for what is absolutely one of their biggest wins of the season over the Vancouver Canucks – the league’s first-place team. It was the Stars’ fourth victory in a row, which allowed them to keep possession of eighth place in the West and pulled them within three points of Pacific Division leader Phoenix. If the Stars can catch the Coyotes, it would catapult them into one of the top three slots in the conference.
|Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro have been outstanding on Dallas' top line with Loui Eriksson. (Getty Images)|
The Stars continue to get strong goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, as the NHL’s Third Star for last week has been outstanding while winning three straight starts – stopping 83 of 86 shots over that span. The Finnish netminder will likely get the nod on Wednesday against Pittsburgh. But perhaps the biggest reason for the Stars’ recent surge is the play of their top line, made up of Loui Eriksson, Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder. They were the goal scorers in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Vancouver, where the Stars handed the Canucks their first loss when leading after two periods.
Eriksson scored the overtime winner to give himself 11 points in his last 10 games. Ribeiro’s goal (with less than a minute left in regulation to force extra time) and assist extended his point streak to seven games, where he has 10 points (3G-7A) over that span. And Ryder’s tally was his team-leading 25th of the season, two shy of his career best.
However, they’re not the only Stars who will be carrying point streaks into Wednesday’s meeting with the Penguins. Forward Steve Ott, who was the subject of many trade rumors as the deadline approached, won two key faceoffs to set up the tying goal and the overtime winner against Vancouver and has points in three straight games. Defenseman Trevor Daly got the primary assist on Eriksson’s goal Sunday to give him helpers in each of his last four outings.
In addition, an already-scary Stars squad that’s known for their tight-checking, physical play will be getting a boost on Wednesday with the return of forward Jamie Benn. Coach Glen Gulutzan confirmed Tuesday that the All-Star forward will be in the lineup against Pittsburgh after sitting out six straight with a lower-body injury. However, they’ll still be missing captain Brendan Morrow as he's out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.
STARS: LOUI ERIKSSON
Being out West, Eriksson doesn’t see the Penguins much – but when he does, he tends to score. The highest-scoring Swedish player in Stars franchise history has four goals and an assist in six career games against the Penguins, and he enters Wednesday’s game vs. Pittsburgh on quite a hot streak. Eriksson scored the overtime winner on Sunday vs. Vancouver to give the Canucks their first loss of the season when leading after two periods. Eriksson now has 11 points (3G-8A) in his last 10 outings and has 55 points total on the season. He’s one of just three NHL players who has 50 points and fewer than eight penalty minutes on the season.
PENGUINS: JAMES NEAL
This isn’t the first time James Neal will be seeing his former team, as he scored twice in a 3-1 Penguins victory at CONSOL Energy Center back in November. But Wednesday will mark Neal’s first time back in the city he played in for parts of three seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the 24-year-old admitted it’s more than just a typical road game for him. Look for Neal, who signed a six-year contract extension with Pittsburgh earlier this month after hitting the 30-goal mark for the first time in his young career, to feed off the emotions he’ll surely be feeling in front of his old crowd. He enters the game with six assists in his last three outings.
The Penguins are 6-1 in their last seven games against the Stars dating back to a 4-0 win on March 9, 2004. The Penguins' only loss during that span was a 5-2 setback on Nov. 3, 2010 at American Airlines Center.
This season, the Penguins have the Eastern Conference's best record against the Western Conference at 9-2-3. Only the St. Louis Blues (12-1-2) have a better out-of-conference record among NHL teams.
Pittsburgh enters Wednesday's game having tallied on the man-advantage at least once in 10 of its last 15 games dating back to Jan. 20 (14-for-45, 31.1 percent).
They currently have the NHL's No. 1 combined special teams unit, coming in just slightly ahead of the Vancouver Canucks. Pittsburgh’s penalty killing unit currently places second overall, while the power play ranks fifth in the NHL and first in the Eastern Conference. This season, the Penguins are 23-3-3 (.845 pct.) when they win the special teams battle; they are 11-9-2 (.545 pct.) when it is equal; and they are just 2-9 (.182 pct.) when they lose the special teams battle. During the 21-game sequence from Jan. 11-Feb. 26, the Penguins either won or were equal on special teams in 20 of the 21 games (15-5-1 record, .738 pct.).
Four Penguins enter Wednesday's game with active point streaks: Evgeni Malkin, 5 games (5G-4A); Steve Sullivan, 5 games (1G-7A); Matt Cooke, 3 games (1G-3A); and Pascal Dupuis, 3 games (2G-1A).
Head coach Dan Bylsma provided a few injury updates after practice on Tuesday before the team departed on their two-game road swing to Dallas and Colorado.
He started by saying that every player will be going on the trip, and added that they will wait and see on the status of Arron Asham. Asham sat out Sunday's game vs. Columbus with an upper-body injury but practiced today with the team.
"Today was, I think, a good day for him," Bylsma said of Asham. "We’ll see how his practice was and how he responds. I think him being healthy sometime during this trip is a possibility."
Asham was asked how he felt following the skate, and he responded, "Everything’s good. Just a little banged up. More precautionary than anything. Felt great out there today. Had a good day off (Monday) and will be ready for this trip."
Bylsma was then asked about the status of Tyler Kennedy, who has missed the last nine games with a high-ankle sprain but has been skating before practices.
"Kennedy is going on the trip," Bylsma said. "He skated this morning with Sid. He’s doing well, as well. I think that’s four consecutive days (of skating) for 'TK.' He’s improving as well."
Bylsma concluded that goalie Brent Johnson is still day-to-day at this point in time. Brad Thiessen, who made his NHL debut in a 4-2 win over Columbus on Sunday, is currently serving as Marc-Andre Fleury's backup.
F Arron Asham, upper body (1)
C Sidney Crosby, concussion-like symptoms (34)
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (3)
F Tyler Kennedy, high ankle sprain (9)
F Jamie Benn, lower body (6)
F Jake Dowell, hand (3)
F Brenden Morrow, upper body (12)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo