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 will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
Fans in the United States, get ready for a healthy dose of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins will be a featured team in NBCSN's Wednesday Night Rivalry series three times this month.
Well, yeah, of course they will be. Hello, they have Crosby and Malkin. They're a big draw. And they're a top team in the Eastern Conference, even if they have struggled of late with two wins in their past seven games (2-4-1).
The Penguins first opponent on NBCSN this month is the Boston Bruins, another team that hasn't quite been itself of late, or really this season. The Bruins have lost three in a row in extra time and are actually on the outside of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference right now.
So the Bruins have a lot to play for Wednesday at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET) to get their season back on track. The Penguins have a lot to play for because they need to break out of their mini-slump and assert themselves as the best team in the Metropolitan Division.
Let's break it down, as we do for every Wednesday Night Rivalry game, with some of the good, some of the bad, and what you all should be watching for:
Plusses: At least they still have a lot of their core/key pieces there. Obviously I'm talking about Tuukka Rask, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand; however, the problem is none of those guys are playing at the level they're fully capable of for whatever reason, injuries or otherwise.
Here's the thing, I think we can spin that as a plus because I still think they can get to their top level this season. They have been there before and they're good enough. We all know they're good enough, that they're talented, they're skilled, compete hard and know how to win.
The challenge is they need to be more of those things. They need to be more of who they are, a lot more of who they are. They need to play to the level of who they are, because they're capable and the Bruins need it.
Boston is at the point in the season where it needs to start hitting its stride. It's not put up or shut up time yet, but that time isn't far off either.
Minuses: They still have not been able to find that right wing to play on their top line. I've talked about this before, but it remains a minus.
I know general manager Peter Chiarelli is making his calls and inquiring on this, trying to be diligent and strategic, and maybe it's good now that he knows what it will cost. He can see what David Perron cost the Penguins, a player and a first-round pick. That set the market for a top-six winger, but Chiarelli has to do something because the Bruins just don't have a dynamic winger who can complement their centers and score. They are having problem scoring.
Look at the guys they have had and lost in that lineup that are gone:
Mark Recchi retired. Jaromir Jagr moved on. They traded Tyler Seguin (don't get me started). Nathan Horton left. Jarome Iginla left. Look at those guys. That's an all-star lineup and they were all once Bruins.
When you think of the Bruins, right wing has not been a problem; it has never been a problem. Well, it's a problem now. The lack of production they're getting is a problem. That has an impact on Lucic, who can and should be better himself. It also has an impact on Krejci, and overall it has an impact on their team.
They have to address that. Obviously Chiarelli is working on trying to do just that, but the longer it takes the longer they struggle.
Plusses: The main thing I like about Pittsburgh is how Marc-Andre Fleury has played. He's been great all season. He's been awesome.
Remember we talked about his extension when he signed it. I've got to give credit to Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and Fleury's agent, Allan Walsh, on this contract because nobody panicked, everybody was of the same mindset, and they gave him the opportunity to continue to re-establish himself.
Obviously everyone is going to wait for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but you can only play the games in front of you and to this point he's been fantastic. I think he's a Vezina Trophy candidate right now.
Fleury is very settled, and now all he has to do is focus on playing, which he's done. That, as a player, is what you want. He has no distractions going forward. I give Rutherford and Walsh credit for that, for being proactive.
A lot of the Penguins' stars have been great, but they've had some injuries and the mumps to key players like Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Chris Kunitz and obviously Pascal Dupuis. But Fleury has been a constant. He's been the constant in almost every game.
Minuses: I've only got one negative for the Penguins -- injuries.
They've got a good goal differential, have been better defensively, they're attacking a lot more, and I think overall they're playing a similar game to when they were at their best under Dan Bylsma. But they have been banged up. They've had their share of injuries.
Look at the players they were missing Saturday, when they lost 4-1 to the Montreal Canadiens: Hornqvist, Maatta, Dupuis, Paul Martin and Blake Comeau. In addition, Kunitz, Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Brandon Sutter, Beau Bennett, Steve Downie, Craig Adams, Robert Bortuzzo and Marcel Goc have missed time with injuries.
The Penguins have something in the neighborhood of 170 man-games lost this season. That's not a negative against them or an indictment against them; it's just something they've had to deal with. Otherwise I really like their game this season.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Keep an eye on Perron
I'm curious to see if he plays with Crosby all game, or if coach Mike Johnston will experiment with him. Will they keep him there on a permanent basis or will they try to experiment with a couple of other combinations?
2. Boston's chances
Will the Bruins generate Grade A chances, or will they be just eh? And if they generate some Grade A chances early, will they be able to sustain that throughout the game? That's the hard part.
3. Bruins' physicality; Penguins speed
If I'm either team, that's my key. If I'm the Bruins, I'm trying to set the tone early to make sure the Penguins can't play a comfortable and smooth game, but not stupid physical because we don't want Evgeni Malkin on the power play all night. If I'm the Penguins, I'm trying to play a speed game because I don't think the Bruins can keep up.