What to Watch For: Pens vs. Panthers
Thursday, 03.08.2012 / 8:00 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: March 9, 2012 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM
After finishing dead last in the East last year, the Florida Panthers are continuing their remarkable turnaround this season as they currently sit atop the Southeast Division and third in the conference. The Panthers are just one point shy of their best record since the 1999-2000 campaign, which is the last time the franchise made the playoffs.
The biggest problem for the Panthers this season has been their consistency. They haven’t strung together any lengthy winning streaks (no more than three at a time) that can really give teams a leg up as they fight for their playoff lives. So instead, the Panthers are alternating small two- or three-game stretches of wins and losses – a trend that’s really taken flight over the second half of the season. And right now, they’re on the downward trend as they’ve lost three of their last four – including a 5-0 blanking to Philadelphia Thursday night and a 7-0 trouncing to Winnipeg last week – who’s just two points behind them in the divisional standings, as is Washington.
Florida will make their two-game trek through the Keystone State without top scorer Kris Versteeg, who has missed the last five games with a lower-body injury – and with him out, first-year head coach Kevin Dineen had to dismantle his usual top line of Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann. Dineen opted to flank Weiss with Sean Bergenheim and Mikael Samuelsson, and it’s a move that’s paid off handsomely. The trio has a decent mix of skill and determination that gives them chemistry, and they’ve been playing well together because of it.
Fleischmann – whose 20 goals rank second on the team – has moved to play left wing with Marcel Goc and Wojtek Wolski, who has six points (2G-4A) in 16 games with the Panthers since being acquired from the New York Rangers on Feb. 25. Wolski possesses tremendous puck-handling skills and offensive instincts, but has struggled to find consistency over the last few seasons.
A big factor in their overall success has been contributions from the back end. Jason Garrison ranks second (tied) among NHL defensemen with 14 tallies, which is double the amount he totaled in his career entering the season (113 games, 2009-11). Nine of those have come on the power play, which he’s been an integral part of along with All-Star blueliner Brian Campbell. He ranks second among NHL blueliners in both assists and points.
PANTHERS: SEAN BERGENHEIM
Bergenheim didn’t play the last time Pittsburgh and Florida met, a 4-1 Penguins victory at CONSOL Energy Center, as he was sidelined with a lower-body injury that saw him miss 12 games. Perhaps he would have made a difference in Florida’s favor in that game, as he seems to enjoy playing against the Penguins. Bergenheim was Tampa Bay’s playoff hero last season, scoring three goals in the Lightning’s first-round series with the Penguins – including the series-clinching goal in Game 7. And despite playing just 46 games this season, Bergenheim has matched his goal output (14) he posted through 80 games in 2010-11 and is one shy of tying his career high, set in 2008-09 with NY Islanders. The winger has been given a larger role on Florida’s top line with Stephen Weiss and Mikael Samuelsson, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it Friday.
PENGUINS: PASCAL DUPUIS
After creating a multitude of offensive opportunities against Colorado and Phoenix, the Penguins winger broke through on Wednesday against Toronto when he scored twice and added an assist to power the Penguins past the Leafs, 3-2. Dupuis now has 17 goals this season and 40 points overall, which is the second-highest total of his career, and the Penguins are 14-1-1 this season when he scores at least once. Dupuis, who’s thriving on a line with Jordan Staal and Steve Sullivan, also has five goals and nine points in his last 10 outings vs. Florida. But offense isn’t what Dupuis is known for – he’s one of the team’s best defensive forwards and one of their strongest penalty killers, so look for him to be a factor against Florida’s 10th-ranked power play.
The Penguins enter Friday's game having won seven straight games – the longest active streak in the NHL. With a win, they will equal their longest winning streak of the season (8 games; Jan. 13-31). Only the Boston Bruins, who won 10 straight games from Nov. 1-23, have won more consecutive games this season. A victory would give the Penguins two of the NHL’s three longest winning streaks this year.
During their seven-game winning streak the Penguins are outscoring foes, 27-10. They are averaging 3.86 goals per game and allowing just 1.41.
Pittsburgh has won five straight home games and is 11-1 in its last 12 home contests.
The Penguins have won six straight home games against the Florida Panthers dating back to a 4-3 shootout win on March 8, 2009. Florida’s last win in Pittsburgh was a 6-1 win on Jan. 3, 2009. Pittsburgh is 14-5 in its last 19 games against the Panthers.
Since the beginning of last season the Penguins are 15-2-1 at home against the Southeast Division. If you subtract the Washington Capitals from that number, the Penguins are 14-0 against the other four teams from the Southeast Division. Outside of the Capitals, the last Southeast Division team to defeat the Penguins at home was Tampa Bay (2-0) on March 31, 2010 at the Mellon Arena.
The Penguins are 19-4-1 in their last 24 games dating back to Jan. 13.
Over the last seven games, Pittsburgh’s second line of Jordan Staal (3G-6A), Steve Sullivan (3G-7A) and Pascal Dupuis (4G-3A) have combined to score 26 points – an average of 3.7 per game. During that stretch they have actually outscored the Penguins’ top line of Evgeni Malkin (6G-4A), James Neal (5A) and Chris Kunitz (3G-1A) 26-19. Sullivan’s 10 points in those seven games are tied for the team lead with Malkin.
Center Jordan Staal enters Friday with assists in six straight games dating back to Feb. 25 –the longest assist streak of his career. His previous best was five games (April 4-11, 2009; 6 total). Staal’s current six-game point streak (3G-6A) is tied for the longest streak of his career (April 1-11, 2009). Staal also has points in 10 of 12 games since returning from a knee injury on Feb. 11. In those 12 games, Staal has seven goals and 15 points (1.25 avg.).
Florida has allowed the game’s first two goals in six of its last seven contests (3-3-1) and seven of its last nine (4-4-1). Florida has allowed the game's first goal in 12 of its last 16 games and 38 times this season. The Panthers are 12-21-5 when allowing the game’s first goal.
The Cats are 22-2-7 when scoring with the man advantage this season, including a 14-0-1 mark when scoring a PPG and not allowing an opponent PPG. Florida's 44 PPG are T-7th most in the NHL and its 18.3% success rate is 11th in the NHL. On the penalty kill, Florida has allowed a power-play goal in seven of its last 10 games.
Defenseman Paul Martin is ill and may not play. The Pens recalled Simon Despres in case Martin is unable to play.
Crosby continues to practice with contact. He's had no setbacks and no symptoms.
Defenseman Kris Letang experienced "symptoms" after a hit from Stars forward Eric Nystrom midway through the first period of Pittsburgh's 4-3 shootout win over Dallas on Feb. 29. He skated Friday morning before the the Penguins' morning skate with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar.
Goalie Brent Johnson, who has been sidelined since tweaking something in practice on Feb. 23, returned to practice with the team on Tuesday as the next step in his rehab.
"I’m still day-to-day," he said. "Still feeling it a little bit. Not up to snuff yet. The first practice felt good, though. To be back there, it’s been a while."
Johnson remains optimistic that the injury won't be long term.
"It’s something that’s been nagging me for a very long time," he said. "Hopefully get it taken care of and hopefully it’ll get better in the next couple days here."
Defenseman Deryk Engelland has not played the last two games with a lower-body injury. He skated Friday on his own and is listed as day-to-day.
C Sidney Crosby, concussion-like symptoms (39)
D Deryk Engelland, lower body (2)
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (8)
D Kris Letang, symptoms (4)
D Dmitry Kulikov, knee (19)
RW Scottie Upshall, sports hernia (18)
RW Matt Bradley, upper body (8)
RW Kris Versteeg, lower body (5)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo