For the second time in three games, the Canadiens will face a team atop the NHL. But his one, the Penguins, is like the Canadiens — pretty banged up.
The teams face off on Thursday in Pittsburgh and the Pens are now in a four-way tie with Colorado, the Caps and the Stars with 10 points. They have the most goals in the league with 23, but they’ve surrendered 20. They’ve also played the most games, eight.
The Habs’ injuries, you know about, and you probably know about some of the Pens’ injuries as well. But here they are anyway:
Sidney Crosby is inching closer to returning from concussion, but all indications are he won’t be in the lineup for this one. Evgeni Malkin’s knee has kept him out of the last three games; the latest reports say he might be good to go against the Habs, but it may come down to a game-time decision. Defenceman Brooks Orpik has not played yet this season after complications from undergoing offseason hernia surgery; he’s skating but not ready yet.
Wait, there’s more: Winger Tyler Kennedy is out with a concussion and his return is uncertain. Centre Dustin Jeffery suffered a torn ACL late last season and has yet to play, but he is skating and close to return.
In addition, top defenceman Kris Letang will serve the second of a two-game league suspension for a boarding call on Sunday and the guy they called up from the AHL to replace him on Tuesday, Brian Stait, left in the second period with what looked like a hand or wrist injury.
That’s a lot of missing talent. Without Crosby, Malkin, Kennedy, Letang and Orpik, they’re missing two world-class centres, the team’s top goal-scorer in the second half of last season in Kennedy, and the top defensive pairing in Letang and Orpik, not to mention Letang’s team high six assists and seven points.
“Ever since I’ve been here, guys have been going down,” winger James Neal told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s the way guys play here. They leave it all out on the ice.”
But the Pens somehow keep on winning, as they did last season, helping coach Dan Bylsma earn the Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year. “You can always find excuses,” Bylsma said. “This is about guys playing the right way.”
“It’s the commitment in this room,” Penguins forward Matt Cooke said last week. “We play a certain way no matter who is in the lineup, and that’s the strength of our team. We have a good enough team that if guys can’t play, we can hold the fort.”
Their effort Tuesday against Minnesota was pretty inspiring, coming a night after a loss in Winnipeg. They skated hard, had the puck a great deal, used the stretch pass expertly on the breakout to spread out the Wild’s defence, then jumped into the holes. They blocked shots, established a good forecheck, won lots of puck battles and forced turnovers, three of which turned into goals. After the game (video), Blysma praised Jordan Staal for his effort and singled out his other penalty killers, Cooke, Craig Adams, Pacal Dupuis, and defencemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek for the tough minutes they played a man down. They killed off all five penalties and Dupuis scored a big shorthanded goal.
“It was key for us to be able to play that way, especially back-to-back nights and (considering) a lot of the hockey we’ve played, but a lot of the guys gutted this one out. It was a great team win.”
Still, the Pens could be fatigued. They’ve played five games in eight days. Thursday will make it six in 10. They’ve played in four different time zones already this season, and five of their eight games have been on the road. Being home, however, could energize them.
One of the quieter big stories for Pittsburgh has been the play of Neal, who is second in league goal scoring with six. Acquired from Dallas last February to be Crosby’s winger, Neal did little down the stretch and in the postseason. But he’s adjusted to his new surroundings and when Crosby comes back, Neal could really explode. He’s a legit power forward who has scored at least 20 goals in each of his three NHL seasons without anyone like Crosby setting him up. And he’s only 24.
Brent Johnson was in goal for the Pens against Minnesota, giving Marc-Andre Fleury a rest. Fleury will be back in goal to face the Habs.
While it will be a big night for the Habs Hall Gill, an ex-Pen playing his 1,000th career game, former Hab Aaron Asham will play his 700th while skating for the Penguins.
Here’s how the Penguins will probably line up on Thursday in Pittsburgh:
Steve Sullivan, Mark Letestu,James Neal
Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal, Arron Asham
Matt Cooke, Joe Vitale, Pascal Dupuis
Steve MacIntyre, Richard Park, Craig Adams
Brian Strait, Deryk Engelland
Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy