What to Watch For: Pens vs. Senators
Friday, 03.23.2012 / 4:00 PM / Features
By Sam Kasan
WHEN: March 24, 2012 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: Scotiabank Place
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM
The Ottawa Senators are in the middle of a dogfight for the NHL playoffs. The club currently sits in the No. 7 seed with 84 points and is on the precipice of being on the outside of the postseason bubble, as Washington and Buffalo are breathing down their necks with 82 points apiece.
The Senators received some great news Thursday as starting goaltender Craig Anderson will return to the lineup for the first time in a month Friday night in Montreal. Anderson has been out since having surgery Feb. 25 to repair a torn tendon on his blocker hand. He injured the hand in a freak kitchen accident while pulling apart frozen chicken – seriously.
Anderson has been the catalyst of Ottawa’s success this season, leading the team with a 29-19-6 record, 2.85 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. With a month off to recuperate physically and mentally, Anderson will step back in for the team’s final eight-game playoff push. But he didn't get off to a good start, as Anderson allowed two goals on the first four shots he faced against the Canadiens Friday and was pulled within the first five minutes. Ben Bishop, who had started seven in a row before Anderson's return, was inserted in his stead.
The Senators will also be getting back leading scorer Jason Spezza, who was a last-minute scratch by the team Tuesday against New Jersey with an illness. Spezza, who has three goals and six points in three games against Pittsburgh this season, paces Ottawa with 76 points (30G-46A).
Spezza anchors the Senators’ top line with sniper Milan Michalek and long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson. Michalek, the brother of Penguins’ defenseman Zbynek, leads Ottawa with a career-high 32 goals. However, Michalek has only two points (both assists) in his last six games. Meanwhile Alfredsson, who has 50 points (22G-28A) on the season, hasn’t scored a goal in his last 12 games.
On the blue line, the Senators boast one of the most prolific defensive talents in the NHL in Erik Karlsson. The 21-year-old blueliner is blowing away his competition around the league with 19 goals (four more than second-place Jason Garrison), 53 assists (eight more than Brian Campbell) and 72 points (an eye-popping 23 more than second-place Campbell). Karlsson, who has been compared to legendary offensive defenseman Paul Coffey, has been mentioned as a possible Norris Trophy candidate as NHL defenseman of the year. He also paces the Senators with 25:15 minutes of ice time per game.
SENATORS: JASON SPEZZA
Senators center Jason Spezza has been a thorn for the Penguins throughout his career. He has 15 goals and 39 points in 31 career games against Pittsburgh, including one hat trick. Spezza, the second-overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, is a complete center with a blend of playmaking ability and a scoring touch. Spezza’s had a whirlwind week, learning that his friend, skier Nic Zoricic, died in Switzerland and waiting while his wife is about to give birth to the couple’s second child any day now. Prior to Friday, Spezza had been held to just one goal in his last nine games. He scored Ottawa's lone goal in a 5-1 loss to Montreal for his fourth 30-goal season, and seems ready to break out of his slump at any moment. The Penguins are hoping it doesn’t happen Saturday night.
PENGUINS: PASCAL DUPUIS
The Penguins have the NHL’s No. 1 ranked offense despite having superstar captain Sidney Crosby in the lineup for only 13 games. Part of the reason has been the team’s secondary scoring. One key contributor has been forward Pascal Dupuis. He ranks fourth on the team with 47 points (22G-25A). His 22 goals are a career high. Dupuis carries an eight-game scoring streak into Saturday’s showdown with seven goals and 10 points during the stretch.
The Penguins clinched a postseason berth for the sixth consecutive season. That’s the second-longest streak in franchise history behind the 11 straight seasons the team made the playoffs between 1991-2001.
The Penguins have 98 points for the season, good enough for second place in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh trails the New York Rangers by one point, 99-98, in the race for the division and conference titles. Pittsburgh’s 98 points rank third in the NHL behind St. Louis (100 points) and the Rangers in the race for the President’s Trophy (best regular-season team). Pittsburgh won its only President’s Trophy in the 1992-93 season.
Evgeni Malkin has an active six-game point streak (7G-7A) and a five-game goal-scoring streak. Malkin leads the NHL’s scoring race with 95 points (45G-50A) this season. Malkin is 10 points ahead of Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux (85 points) and 11 above Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (84 points).
Marc-Andre Fleury has sole possession of first place in the NHL with 40 wins, one ahead of Nashville’s Pekka Rinne. Fleury is two wins shy of equaling Tom Barrasso’s franchise record for wins (226). This marks the second time he has reached 40 wins in his career (’06-07). He carries a 12-game unbeaten streak (11-0-1) since a Feb. 15th loss against the Anaheim Ducks. He has stopped 307-of-324 shots (.947 SVP) his last 11 starts.
Chris Kunitz hit the 50-point mark for the fourth time in his career, and his first time with the Penguins. Kunitz last hit the 50-point mark in 2008-09 when he split the season with Pittsburgh and Anaheim.
Matt Cooke boasts a career high with 17 goals. Cooke has had five goals over his last five games.
Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen left the team's Thursday game against Nashville halfway through the second period with an upper-body injury. Head coach Dan Bylsma said that he and forward Joe Vitale will not make the trip to Ottawa with the team and their statuses for Sunday's game vs. New Jersey are uncertain.
"Joe Vitale and Matt Niskanen will not be going on the trip with us and they probably won’t be playing through the weekend," Bylsma said.
Goalie Brent Johnson has been cleared for full practice and participated in his first skate with the team on Friday. While he'd like to get in a game before the playoffs, he is still not 100 percent and is just taking it day by day.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said when Johnson is healthy, he will be the backup goalie to Marc-Andre Fleury.
"He’s on a rehab schedule. Like to see him continue to do well in that," Bylsma said. "If that’s the case, he’ll be in practice next week a couple of times. If that continues to go well, then we’ll be looking to get him back in a game at some point."
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (14)
D Matt Niskanen, upper-body (0)
F Joe Vitale, undisclosed (3)
C Peter Regin, shoulder (season ending)
F Jesse Winchester, concussion (day-to-day)
Author: Sam Kasan