What to Watch For: Pens vs. Avalanche
Friday, 03.2.2012 / 5:23 PM ET / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: March 3, 2012 - 9:00 pm | WHERE: Pepsi Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM
The Colorado Avalanche suffered a stunning 2-0 shutout loss at the hands of the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night. A win would have moved the Avs into eighth place in a tight Western Conference. Instead, Colorado remains on the outside looking in from the 10th-place spot. While they’re just one point behind 8th-place Dallas and 9th-place Los Angeles, Calgary is just one behind the Avs – and all three of those teams have a game in hand on Colorado.
The loss was especially surprising considering Colorado’s recent play, as they’d just pieced together their best February since the 2002-03 season – going 7-3-2 during the month for 16 points. They’d entered Thursday’s game on a four-game win streak, where they had netted four or more goals in each of those contests and outscored their opponents 17-5. Overall, they’re now 6-3-1 in their last 10.
A big part of that success has been red-hot goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who has recovered from recent struggles that put him on the bench many nights in favor of Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Varlamov, acquired from Washington for two high draft picks last summer, is now 3-1 in his last four outings and has stopped 113 of his last 117 shots. But the veteran Giguere has fully recovered from a groin injury that gave Varlamov the opportunity to step in and get some games, and Adrian Dater of the Denver Post reported Friday that Giguere will get the start Saturday.
The Avs have also gotten a boost with the addition of Steve Downie, acquired from Tampa Bay on Feb. 21 in exchange for defenseman Kyle Quincey. The Avs are 4-1 since Downie joined the lineup, and he’s got seven points in those games playing on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog. The 19-year-old Landeskog, a surefire Calder Trophy candidate, has been especially impressive with his recent play. Landeskog was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for February with seven goals and 13 points in 12 games and had a six-game point streak snapped on Thursday.
While that line is playing well, the Avalanche’s bigger names – Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny – haven’t been performing at their usual high levels. Captain Hejduk has just one goal in his last 14 games, Stastny has three in his last 17 and Duchene has one in six since missing 20 straight with a knee injury.
AVALANCHE: GABRIEL LANDESKOG
The second-overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft is making his mark on the league during his rookie campaign. After being the just the third 18-year-old in Avalanche history to win an opening-night roster spot, Landeskog has pieced together a fantastic freshman season in Colorado. The now 19-year-old has been one of the Avalanche's most consistent players all year, leading the team and all NHL rookies in several statistical categories: goals (18), plus/minus (plus-22), shots (204) and hits (167). The young power forward played especially well last month, scoring seven goals and 13 points in February – which earned him NHL Rookie of the Month honors. The mature young Swede – who became the youngest player in 30 years to be named captain of the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League last season – may have seen his six-game point streak snap Thursday, but look for him to be a factor on Saturday.
PENGUINS: MARC-ANDRE FLEURY
Fleury’s play has been exceptional lately, as he enters Saturday's game having won four straight games. Looking at the bigger picture, he’s 14-2-1 in his last 17 starts dating back to Jan. 13 at Florida and his 32 wins rank second in the NHL. He performed especially well on Wednesday in the Penguins’ 4-3 shootout win over Dallas, producing one dazzling, breathtaking save after another to keep his team in a tough, physical game with a playoff-like atmosphere and allow them to come away with two points. And with an Avalanche team that outscored their opponents 17-5 before Thursday’s 2-0 loss to Columbus coming up on Saturday, the Penguins will need their goaltender to continue his excellent play. It's also worth nothing that following the shootout victory in Dallas, Fleury is now 8-2 in such situations.
This season, the Penguins have the Eastern Conference's best record against the Western Conference at 10-2-3. Only the St. Louis Blues (13-1-2) have a better out-of-conference record among NHL teams.
Pittsburgh owns an unbeaten 6-0-2 road record this year against Western Conference opponents. In fact, Pittsburgh has gone 13 road games without a regulation loss against a Western Conference foe dating back to a 3-2 loss at Anaheim on Nov. 5, 2010 (10-0-3).
Pittsburgh’s 4-3 shootout win on Wednesday night at Dallas improved the team’s record this year to 8-3 in shootouts and 10-5 in overtime. Only the New Jersey Devils (10) have more shootout wins, and only three other teams (New Jersey, 14; Colorado, 12; Vancouver, 12) have more OT wins this season.
The Avalanche are 12-4 in games that go beyond regulation, 5-3 in overtime and 7-1 in shootouts. Those 12 combined OT/shootout victories are tied with Vancouver for second in the NHL behind only New Jersey (14-4).
Defenseman Kris Letang is experiencing what head coach Dan Bylsma called "symptoms" after a hit from Stars forward Eric Nystrom midway through the first period of Wednesday's game.
On the play, Nystrom and Letang were converging on a loose puck in the Penguins zone from opposite directions. Letang reached out and poked it up the boards, while Nystrom decided to take the body and clipped the defenseman up high with a hard hit that sent him flying. Letang stayed on the ice for a few scary moments and was tended to by head athletic trainer Chris Stewart before heading straight off the ice.
Letang remains with the team on their road trip and will get reevaluated after returning to Pittsburgh.
"(Letang) remains with us and he’s going home with us after the game (Saturday)," Bylsma said following Friday's practice at Pepsi Center. "He’s got symptoms. Not dramatic at this point, but certainly going to get home and get evaluated by our doctors."
Forward Steve Sullivan did not play in the third period of Wednesday's game with a lower-body injury. He did not practice Thursday or Friday, but has not been ruled out for Saturday's contest.
"Steve Sullivan remained off the ice," Bylsma said. "Still day-to-day for (Saturday) and he’ll go out for the morning skate."
Goalie Brent Johnson has not skated since tweaking something in practice on Feb. 23. Bylsma said he doesn't anticipate Johnson being out long-term at this point.
"Not really long-term at this point (on Johnson)," Bylsma said. "He’s doing rehab and getting rest from the ice. Don’t anticipate it being long-term at this point."
Meanwhile, forward Tyler Kennedy has been cleared for practice and rejoined his teammates on Wednesday for the first time since suffering a high-ankle sprain on Feb. 5 at New Jersey. While he is progressing in his recovery, Bylsma said there is no chance Kennedy will play Saturday.
C Sidney Crosby, concussion-like symptoms (35)
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (4)
F Tyler Kennedy, high ankle sprain (10)
F Ryan O'Byrne, knee (4)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo