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Notebook: Pens Host Lightning

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins will host the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday night at 7 p.m. at CONSOL Energy Center. And the talk of the locker room following Pittsburgh’s morning skate was on how to defend scoring sensation Steven Stamkos.

Stamkos leads the NHL with 37 goals (seven more than the next best total) and trails Penguins Evgeni Malkin by five points in the scoring race with 62.

“Just being aware of him is important,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He’s a good player. He’s got a great shot and has good players around him so he’s going to get some chances. That’s inevitable. I think keeping him off the power play is an area of focus for us. Try to take away his time and space and be hard on him when we can.”

And the best way to defend great players is to keep them stuck in their own zone. The Pens system is designed for the team to spend the majority of the game in the offensive zone. Stamkos can’t score if he’s playing defense.

“The best way to keep an offensive player like that off the scoreboard is to keep him in his own end the whole night,” Niskanen said. “It’s no secret, but that’s the formula. If everybody commits to it, it increases your chances of keeping them off the scoresheet.”

Head coach Dan Bylsma echoed that sentiment:

“If you can have Steven Stamkos standing in defensive zone coverage and watch our team play with the puck it’s hard for him to score.”

For Bylsma, the Lightning’s first trip to Pittsburgh this year was a callback to when the Bolts knocked the Pens out of the playoffs in Game 7 of last year’s opening round series.

“Seeing them back in this building for our team, regardless of how many points they do have, this is the team that beat us in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s the reminder I was stricken with this morning when I saw the logo on their bags and seeing some of their players.”

Pens defenseman Simon Despres participated in the team’s optional morning skate. Despres, who is recovering from a knee injury, had a “setback” Thursday, but is back on the road to recovery.

“It feels a little bit better,” Despres said. “I’m cleared for practice. It doesn’t feel the best, but I’m working on it and it’s getting there. I get the occasional tweak. Hopefully, I can get ice and fix it.”

While Despres isn’t sure when he’ll return to the lineup, he did give props for the work and support he’s received from the team’s training staff.

“They’ve been unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a great training staff.”

The Penguins held an optional morning skate at CONSOL Energy Center. Nine players partook: Jordan Staal, Joe Vitale, Dustin Jeffrey, Cal O’Reilly, Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Matt Niskanen and Brent Johnson.

Sidney Crosby and Arron Asham skated prior to the team’s optional morning skate.

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