This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry features two teams in very different places as the Pittsburgh Penguins, who sit atop the Eastern Conference standings, visit the last-place Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2). But there are plenty of compelling subplots to this game that we could still be discussing as the season plays out.
Starting with Pittsburgh, I'm definitely impressed by defenseman Matt Niskanen. He is having a hell of a year. He is a guy who is definitely playing above expectations and he's a pending unrestricted free agent, so he's going to get a lot of money either from Pittsburgh or someone else. Another young defenseman, Olli Maatta, has also been very impressive, especially for a 19-year-old. Both of these players found their game as the Penguins dealt with some major injuries on the back end.
Kris Letang has been injured and hasn't played at the same level, Paul Martin has been banged-up. Add that to injuries to Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik and there has been a great opportunity for Niskanen and Maatta to come in and play at the level they have.
Pittsburgh has a lot of talent on its roster but it's been goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury who has led the way. He's the first goalie to 30 wins this year, which says a lot to me. He worked on a couple of things in the offseason and has been awesome this year. How crucial is Fleury to this team? Just look at the constants for the Penguins in the last four regular seasons.
Pretty much everyone in that lineup has been injured at some point. Evgeni Malkin has been injured, Sidney Crosby has been injured, James Neal has been injured. You go up and down that roster, a lot of their main guys have been injured, especially this year. But Marc-Andre Fleury has been a constant for them.
The player we should be talking about more with the Penguins has been Jussi Jokinen, who is sitting on 41 points and is having a heck of a year as an important complementary player. Not the fastest player on that team, but very skilled and sees the game very well. He can also play every forward position, so he's a very versatile player who can play in any situation and has been a real nice acquisition for them.
As far as Buffalo goes, they are in a "wait and see" situation right now. Ryan Miller has been awesome and will likely be playing in net against Pittsburgh. He's been a standout in the crease but he's an impending free agent and it doesn't look like he's decided if he wants to remain in Buffalo or not. A lot of the direction of this franchise hinges on how they handle this situation. I've also been told that a lot of teams have been inquiring about Steve Ott as well as Tyler Ennis. Matt Moulson is also a pending UFA, so he could be on the move as well.
So what will this Buffalo Sabres team look like between the roster freeze and the NHL Trade Deadline? A lot of it is predicated on those players.
On the other end, there are some players in Buffalo they can build around for the future. Zemgus Girgensons has been really impressive since he came back. He's played a lot better and he's only a young kid. He's a guy that has been making some great plays, especially in the offensive end. A lot of these potential moves could open up more ice and opportunities for players like Girgensons and Cody Hodgson, who has played better in this past stretch.
Buffalo definitely has pieces it can build around, but I'd like to see a lot more out of Marcus Foligno. I think this guy can be a very good player. He's strong and can play, but I don't think he's anywhere near where he could be based on his skill set.
With so many storylines swirling around their team, the young Sabres could look to send a message against one of the NHL's best teams.