PENGUINS (10-2-0) at BLUE JACKETS (6-5-0)
Last 10 --
Pittsburgh 8-2-0; Columbus 5-5-0
Season series --
First and only meeting this season between inter-conference opponents. Pittsburgh won the lone meeting of 2008-09 with a 4-1 win at Mellon Arena on Feb. 6 -- defenseman Kris Letang
scored a pair of goals, his second multi-goal effort in 10 days, and Marc-Andre Fleury
stopped 33 shots.
Big story --
Any challenges the defending Stanley Cup champs have faced in the early going, they've been up for. Now the Penguins have to deal without superstar forward Evgeni Malkin
for the next two or three weeks thanks to a shoulder injury. They head into Nationwide Arena in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets have won three of four this season.
When Pittsburgh lost defenseman Sergei Gonchar long term to a broken left wrist, it was old hat -- the team survived much of last season without their power-play quarterback. Malkin, however, was a veritable iron man, having played in 254 straight regular-season games before the shoulder injury. He had been playing through it, but the decision was made to let the injury heal, rather than risk making it worse with 70 games left on the schedule.
"I can play good, but it’s the early season," Malkin said about the injury. "I feel good. It’s not a big problem, and I’m fine. I’ll be watching and supporting the team on the trip. It’ll be fine."
"It’s okay. It’s not the pain. It feels good. It’s because it doesn’t feel comfortable now."
Blue Jackets --
The best start in franchise history is now a thing of the past, and Columbus must regroup after dropping four of its last five, including its first home loss, 4-1 to Phoenix, on Wednesday. Last season's Calder Trophy winner, Steve Mason
, has struggled as much as anyone, allowing 20 goals over his last four starts with an .811 save percentage.
"Too many plays with the puck that are too light that come back to haunt us," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We're paying for the errors we make. We're not doing the things in the competitive areas that we need to do. We had a decent first period and then the turnover machine in the second. We're going to have to roll up our sleeves and dig in."
Who's hot --
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby
recorded his third career hat trick in a 6-1 rout of the Canadiens on Wednesday. He has five goals and nine points during a five-game points streak, and even more attention will be paid to No. 87 now with Malkin on the shelf.
Jackets forward Antoine Vermette
had two goals and seven points during a five-game points streak that was snapped in the loss to the Coyotes.
Injury report --
In addition to Gonchar and Malkin, the Penguins didn't have Tyler Kennedy
in their last game due to an undisclosed injury that is likely to keep him out again Friday. Maxime Talbot remains out as he rehabs from offseason shoulder surgery.
The Jackets' injuries include defenseman Jan Hejda (knee), Andrew Murray (muscle tear) and Fredrik Modin (knee).
Stat pack --
Pittsburgh will rest Fleury in favor of Brent Johnson
, and the numbers suggest it's good timing: Johnson is 9-2-2 with a 2.03 goals-against average career against Columbus.
Puck drop --
Mason will be back between the pipes for the Jackets -- even without Malkin in the lineup, there's plenty of firepower in the Penguins' lineup he'll have to contend with, so he needs to break out of his current funk or it could be a long evening for the home crowd.
-- Brian Hunter, NHL.com