Pittsburgh Penguins (36-21-5, 77 pts) @ Dallas Stars (33-26-4, 70 pts)
6:30 PM CT, February 29, 2012
American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
As improbable as it seemed just two weeks ago, the Stars have somehow rallied together and enter tonight's game on a four game win streak. They remain tied with the LA Kings and the Colorado Avalanche for the eighth spot in the West but sit in the last playoff spot due to tiebreakers (Dallas has more regulation and overtime wins).
The opponent tonight is another tough one as the Pittsburgh Penguins come into town. Dallas lost 3-1 in the previous matchup between the two earlier this season. That game was noteworthy because Alex Goligoski was injured and subsequently missed a month of games. Fingers are crossed for a healthier showing tonight.
The Stars have been riding this win streak with solid goaltending and a sudden explosion of offense. They have outscored the opponent 13-4 during the four game win streak and have played stellar throughout the games. There's no huge lapse in concentration and effort that had plagued this team earlier this month, which is a huge relief. They need to come out with that same passion again tonight against Pittsburgh.
The Stars get a boost to the team as Jamie Benn returns tonight from his lacerated leg. He had missed the last six games due to it. Dallas managed to persevere and went 4-1-1 in Benn's absence so tonight should only help the team. As a result of his return, Tom Wandell goes back to his fourth line centering duties which causes a bit of a logjam. Wandell is pretty much assured his spot on that line but Toby Peterson, Ryan Garbutt, Adam Burish and Tomas Vincour are all fighting for time on that line. Vincour and Burish might see time on the first or second lines as Brenden Morrow is still injured, but things will get crazy once he and Jake Dowell return.
Morrow has neck/shoulder/back issues and Dowell has a broken finger. Both should be returning in the next couple of weeks.
Kari Lehtonen gets the start tonight. He probably had the worst performance of his season last game against the Canucks (though he still stopped 24 of 26 shots). He let in two very soft goals (one off his glove and another straight through his armpit) but the Stars offense picked him up for once. He's had some trouble against Pittsburgh lately, going 1-3-0 with a 3.53 GAA in the last four games. He'll need to be stellar tonight.
Notes and thoughts:
- Dallas is 18-12-2 at home this year.
- Dallas is looking for its first five game winning streak since Oct.10 - Oct.21. Those were five of the first seven games of the season.
- The win over the Canucks was the first time since Feb. 4 that the Stars were able to win consecutive games on home ice.
- The Stars PK is 12 of 13 in the last four games.
- Sunday marked the seventh time in the last eight games that Dallas has had two or less PP opportunities during a game. To say that the refs have not been kind would be an understatement.
- Dallas is 8-6-2 against the Eastern Conference this season.
- Michael Ryder has at least a point in nine of the last ten games (6 goals, 4 assists).
- Mike Ribeiro has at least a point in eight of the last nine games (3 goals, 8 assists).
- Loui Eriksson has at least a point in eight of the last ten games (4 goals, 7 assists).
more after the jump
Blog to follow: The Pensblog
What drives the Penguins these days is quite simple to pinpoint. It's Malkin, Malkin, Malkin, Malkin, a little bit of Fleury and Neal, and finally some more Malkin, Malkin and Malkin. Geno (who's my vote for Hart Trophy front-runner at the moment) has been on a tear all season and has still somehow raised his game in the past couple of weeks. He had a hat-trick on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning and his second goal in that game was absolutely filthy. It's something that could be the goal of the year. Unsurprisingly, he leads the team in the major offensive categories and is the league leader in points (37 goals, 41 assists, 78 points).
The Pens enter this game on a three game winning streak in which they have outscored the opponent 14-3. All three of the wins came on home ice for Pittsburgh, who have actually struggled on the road lately (2-3-1 in the last six road games).
The problem Dallas will have against this team (and it showed last game) is the speed of the forwards for Pittsburgh. When Goligoski went down with an injury, the Stars lost their best skating defenseman and guys like Sheldon Souray and Nick Grossman were exposed. Now Dallas has a healthy Goose (knock on wood) and Philip Larsen has shown he has some defending chops to go along with his smooth skating. There will still be problems with the speed of Pittsburgh, but I don't think it will be nearly as bad.
The key in this game for Dallas will be to win the puck battles along the boards. They need to wear out the Pens like they did to the Canucks in order to have a chance in this game. Clogging up the passing lanes is also an absolute must. Malkin, Neal and Kris Letang will burn Dallas on the PP if they're allowed to just cycle the puck around. Dallas needs to watch out for the backdoor cuts and need to keep integrity in their defensive spacing.
Pittsburgh will be without Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Tyler Kennedy (ankle).
Marc-Andre Fleury is the expected starter in net as he got in rest in the Pens previous game. He's been great lately, allowing one goal in his past two games (stopped 61 of 62 shots). He also happens to own Dallas is in career with a 5-0-0 record (1.77 GAA and a .930 save percentage).
Notes and thoughts:
- Pittsburgh is 16-13-3 on the road this season and are 2-3-1 in the last six road games.
- Pittsburgh is 9-2-3 against the West this season.
- The Pens rank 4th in goals per game, 11th in goal against, 5th on the PP and 2nd on the PK.
- Malkin has at least a point in all but two games this month (12 games played). He has five goals in the last three games and a total of 10 goals and 9 assists this month.
- James Neal has at least a point in four of the last five games (1 goal and 5 assists). He scored two goals in the previous game against the Stars.
- Pittsburgh's PP is 6 of 13 in the last four games. Their PK is 15 of 16 in that stretch.
- The Pens do most of their damage in the third period. They have scored 81 goals in the third this season, outscoring their opponent by 22.