Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins have been two of the most consistent teams in the NHL in recent seasons. More often than not they've been favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference and even win the Stanley Cup.
This season hasn't been easy for either team. The Penguins fired coach Mike Johnston earlier in the season after they were not seeing results, and the Bruins were one of the worst defensive teams after beginning a transition season.
But each currently holds a Stanley Cup Playoff spot with less than two months remaining in the regular season. This game should have a playoff feel when the Penguins (30-20-8) visit the Bruins (22-32-6) at TD Garden on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1, TVA Sports). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Sidney Crosby has turned his season around, which has coincided with the Penguins' recent surge. After a slow start he has 25 goals and 56 points in 57 games. Not only has Crosby been great, but the Penguins' defensemen have been more involved with the offense making plays, which says a lot.
This especially has been needed since Evgeni Malkin remains out with a lower-body injury. He hasn't played since Feb. 2, and although he practiced Tuesday he has been ruled out for the game Wednesday.
Some of the young players who have been called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League that coach Mike Sullivan knows from his time there have been making plays and contributing offensively.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury quietly is having another excellent season. He's been their MVP for a few seasons but sometimes gets overshadowed by other goalies in the League, and some of his all-star teammates. Fleury is 24-13-6 with four shutouts, a 2.37 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage and has kept the Penguins in almost every game this season.
Minuses: The defense remains their Achilles' heel. It's thin after Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley. They'll need more offensively and defensively out of the rest of the group if they want to make the playoffs.
We also haven't seen them be consistent as a team this season. They've had stretches of good play and bad play, but it's been tough when you don't know what you're going to get night in and night out.
Lastly, Phil Kessel hasn't played his best yet. It's been a transitional season for him coming over from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has 19 goals. Will he score 25? Probably. But if he had scored one more goal each previous month he'd have 24-25 goals already.
And their health has been problematic. I can't recall when they've been a fully healthy team in recent seasons. Fleury, Malkin and Letang are just a few of the players this season who have missed time.
Pluses: Brad Marchand continues to impress. He has 30 goals this season and is serving notice around the League. He's an unrestricted free agent after the season and they need to re-sign him. He's also been showing he may be able to play a role for Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
There aren't a lot of players like him or Patrice Bergeron in the League. They are distinguishable players. Marchand can do a lot of the annoying things that some players can do, but he can skate and make plays and think the game and execute offensively the way very few agitators can. He can get under your skin, take you off your game, make you lose your focus and still find the back of the net.
Having Bergeron as their No. 2 center is a luxury. He would be a top-line center on many other teams. For him to be such a 200-foot player and an all-situations player and be one of the most trusted players in the League is huge. Although he has been cast as a defense-first, Selke Trophy-winning type player, he has great offensive finish as well.
Overall they are just way beyond where I thought they would be on this rebuild. They are in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and have been for most of the season. They are a little bit different than they have played in the past five seasons and that's a credit to them and coach Claude Julien being able to make this adjustment.
Minuses: For whatever reason they haven't been good at home this season; following a 6-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday they are 12-15-3 at TD Garden. They've been inconsistent and have been a better road team since the early part of the season.
The Bruins don't have as much depth as they once did on defense, with players such as Dougie Hamilton and Johnny Boychuk gone from recent seasons. That's been an adjustment which they clearly struggled with early in the season when they weren't at the top of their game defensively.
Goalie Tuukka Rask has been good but hasn't been as great as he can be on a consistent level. When he is on his game, he is a top-five goalie in the world.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Does Crosby continue to play the way he has been playing? And will the Bruins match his line with Marchand's line?
2. Who has the better game, Fleury or Rask? Each of these teams need their goalie to be on track. They're great goalies but need to slow down the other team's offense.
3. Which team is more disciplined? The Penguins' power play is nowhere near as good as it should be but they have the firepower. And the Bruins, despite a recent slump, had the League's best power play for a majority of the first half of the season.