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 are a different team than they were a week ago. Coach Mike Johnston was fired on Saturday and replaced by Mike Sullivan. Pittsburgh lost 4-1 to the Washington Capitals in his debut on Monday, but Sullivan will try to put his stamp on this team quickly in hopes of turning around the season.
Pittsburgh is also without defenseman Rob Scuderi, who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for Trevor Daley on Monday. In addition, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been their MVP, won't play Wednesday because of a concussion.
Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins are 8-1-3 in their past 12 games and back on track after an 0-3-0 start.
The Penguins (15-11-3) visit the Bruins (16-9-4) at TD Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: It starts with the play of Evgeni Malkin in this last 12-game stretch (10 goals), which they need because when he is on his game, he should be a top-five player in the world. You look at his production and his impact offensively.
The Penguins have found ways to win games defensively, which wasn't happening early in the season. I spoke to Sidney Crosby about that, too and there's been buy-in from him on their ability to do that because you're not going to be able to score your way all the time to win every night, and you certainly always can't score your way to the Stanley Cup.
Even though they haven't been scoring, the Penguins are still in a fairly good position in the Eastern Conference standings, so you'd have to think if they can get it going on the offensive end, that should translate into a few more wins per month.
Minuses: How do they want to play? I spoke to general manager Jim Rutherford the other day. He feels the expectations are much higher for the group and that they also want to activate their defense into the offense a little more in terms of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, who have been banged up with injuries. Once those guys are healthy, you have to think they can help the transition game and activate them in the offensive zone.
That change in play coincides with the coaching change. Sullivan, who coached Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, had the highest winning percentage among coaches in the American Hockey League (18-5-0-0) this season. Sullivan has remodeled himself as a coach and is trying to evolve because he has always been a defensive, penalty-killing shutdown guy; being physical, grinding it out, blocking shots. That, to me, doesn't sound like the Penguins. It'll be interesting to see if Sullivan's changed approach works.
Let's see if Daley can play the way he did in Dallas. I thought Chicago would have been a better fit for him, but now there's an opportunity for him to have a bigger role.
Pluses: The Bruins' power play has been great this season. The level of production that they have been able to get is excellent; so is the fact that with their power play, they score in different ways and aren't dependent on one player. Eight players have scored at least one power-play goal. They'll attack in different ways; that makes it a lot harder for other teams to defend against and allows them to be more confident in their power play.
Having a healthy Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci is huge. They are really their two de facto No. 1 centers, which is huge especially in the Eastern Conference where you have fewer top-end centers than you do in the West. That's a huge difference because those guys are playing half the game. It's not only that they are good offensively, but Bergeron, of course, is great on the defensive side. They just have a good impact on controlling the game; that's very critical to any team but especially a team like theirs where they've had so much turnover on defense and up front. It's nice to have those two stabilizing pieces down the middle.
The Bruins can score. General manager Don Sweeny implemented that change and coach Claude Julien has carried it through right from training camp. They've been able to be better offensively, particularly on the road. All season long, they have been able to put up points. When Brad Marchand scores a point, the Bruins are 13-1-3. That's a great correlation between their winning percentage and how it's affected by him scoring points.
Minuses: The Bruins don't have the same depth on the blue line. They have a different look. They are more mobile on the back end but probably not as physical. The depth on the third and fourth lines from past seasons that they no longer have is also a minus. Carl Soderberg (now with the Colorado Avalanche), Gregory Campbell (Columbus Blue Jackets), Danielle Paille (Rockford of the American Hockey League) are gone and Chris Kelly is injured. Those guys were great penalty-killers and were one of the best fourth lines in the League.
Boston still isn't as physical as it had been, which gives the Bruins a little bit of a different look. They've made that adjustment and become a faster team to play against.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The new speed game that the Bruins have: How does it match that of the Penguins?
2. How the Penguins play: Do they activate their defense more in the offensive zone?
3. Maximizing the skills of Crosby, Kessel, Malkin and their offensive players after the coaching change: Can Sullivan get Pittsburgh's best players to be their best players?