PENGUINS (7-4-0) at CANUCKS (6-2-4)
TV: ROOT, SN, SN1
VANCOUVER -- Versatile Vancouver Canucks left wing Chris Higgins will make his season debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday after breaking his foot blocking a shot in the first preseason game in mid-September.
Higgins, who has scored between 10 and 18 goals each of four full seasons with the Canucks, debuts alongside 19-year-old right wing Jake Virtanen and center Brandon Sutter, who plays his first game against Pittsburgh since being traded to Vancouver in the summer.
"It's difficult when you miss this many games to start the year, it kind of puts you behind the 8-ball a little bit," said Higgins, who kills penalties and sees occasional power-play time. "Usually you get your feel for the game in preseason, and I am not afforded that luxury anymore so I gotta come in and just play simple to start and get my feet wet and hopefully go from there."
Canucks coach Willie Desjardins said it wasn't easy to take a forward out to make room for Higgins, especially coming off a 4-1 win Monday against the Philadelphia Flyers and with Vancouver picking up points in five straight games (3-0-2). But Sven Baertschi, who recorded his fourth assist of the season against the Flyers, will sit for the third time as a healthy scratch.
"That's a hard choice, I thought that was one of his better games," Desjardins said.
Pittsburgh has won four straight and seven of its past eight games, but hasn't played since Saturday and could be without forward Chris Kunitz, who is a game-time decision, according to coach Mike Johnston after skipping practice Tuesday but skating Wednesday morning.
"It's nice to be out there with your teammates, felt good out there," Kunitz said. "But we'll see how everything reacts and hopefully I'll be able to go tonight."
The Penguins only have one spare forward in Daniel Sprong, who didn't play against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. Given how long and hard the 18-year-old skated after most of the Penguins left the ice Wednesday morning, it seems likely Kunitz will play.
Kunitz hasn't been playing with old linemate Sidney Crosby, who continues to face questions about a slow offensive start to the season despite the Penguins recent win streak. Crosby has one goal and four assists in 11 games, but Johnston and Crosby each said they weren't worried about scoring as long as the captain continues to get quality chances and shots.
"I am still confident I can still play. I'm not too old. I don't feel banged up, I feel really healthy and strong, so it's definitely not a worry of mine, but I am not going to sit here and try to argue," Crosby said when asked if his early struggles are a sign of slowing down at age 28. "Whether it's early or midway or end of the season you don't like going through it, but when you are winning it makes it a lot easier. The expectations I have of myself are the ones I am trying to meet, and I definitely expect more, so I am trying to do my best to generate that."
Sutter, who had dinner with Crosby and a couple other Penguins on Tuesday, was amused by the criticism of his former teammate.
"It's pretty early in the year to jump on him in terms of stats and numbers," Sutter said. "It's only a matter of time before he gets hot and hopefully he can wait two more days before he starts."
Here are the projected lineups:
Pascal Dupuis - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist
David Perron - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Chris Kunitz - Nick Bonino - Beau Bennett
Eric Fehr - Matt Cullen - Sergei Plotnikov
Ian Cole - Kris Letang
Olli Maatta - Rob Scuderi
Ben Lovejoy - Brian Dumoulin
Injured: Bryan Rust (undisclosed)
Scratched: Adam Clendening, Daniel Sprong
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Radim Vrbata
Chris Higgins - Brandon Sutter - Jake Virtanen
Alexandre Burrows - Bo Horvat - Jannik Hansen
Adam Cracknell - Jared McCann - Derek Dorsett
Alexander Edler - Christopher Tanev
Dan Hamhuis - Yannick Weber
Ben Hutton - Matt Bartkowski
Injured: Luca Sbisa (lower body), Brandon Prust (ankle), Jacob Markstrom (hamstring)
Scratched: Brendan Gaunce, Alex Biega, Sven Baertschi
Status report: Markstrom, who hasn't played since injuring his hamstring in the final practice before the season started, is back at practice but excepted to play a couple of games with the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League on a conditioning stint before making his NHL regular-season debut. The Canucks start a seven-game road trip in Buffalo on Saturday and Desjardins indicated Markstrom and other players, likely Gaunce, could go back to the AHL after the team travels east together.
Who's hot: Fleury has only given up two goals while winning his past three starts, including a 21-save shutout against the Maple Leafs on Saturday, and is second in the NHL with a .942 save percentage. But Fleury watched both games against the Canucks last season as the backup when Vancouver goaltenders Ryan Miller and since-traded Eddie Lack shut out Pittsburgh. Fleury hasn't started against the Canucks since Jan. 7, 2014, a 5-4 shootout win.