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Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (11-2-0-22) vs. Minnesota Wild (4-9-0-8)

Where: Mellon Arena
Saturday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576.
*View FSN's Broadcast Schedule here()

Season Series:
Pittsburgh and Minnesota will meet twice in 2009-10, with the second meeting coming Jan. 11, 2010 at the Xcel Energy Center. The Wild defeated the Penguins, 2-1 in a shootout on a deciding goal by Marek Zidlicky, in the only meeting between the teams last year. Matt Cooke scored the lone Pittsburgh tally.



Last Meeting: Nov. 18, 2008
PIT 1, MIN 2 (SO)
Game Highlights 
AP Recap  
Even Strength: This game pits teams at opposite ends of the spectrum five-on-five, as the Penguins are one of the top teams in the league while Minnesota ranks near the bottom. Minnesota is struggling early in the season adjusting to Richards’ pressure system after years of read-and-react under Jacques Lemaire. There will be plays for the Penguins to make at even strength. 

Keep the Wild off the Power Play:
The Penguins have gotten into penalty trouble at times in ’09-10. With both teams having played Friday night, special teams could play a factor. Minnesota receives a majority of their offense with the man-advantage, ranking 11th in the league prior to Friday with a success rate of 22.8 percent. Andrew Brunette was tied with an NHL-best five power-play scores before Friday’s games.     
Minnesota missed the playoffs in ’08-09 after qualifying three of the previous five seasons. However in the two seasons prior, the Wild won their only division championship in team history (’07-08) and won a franchise-record 48 times (’06-07). Perennially among the best defensive teams, Minnesota’s 200 goals allowed in ’08-09 were second only to the 196 allowed by the Boston Bruins.   

After playing a neutral-zone trap their first eight seasons, the Wild have undergone a total transformation with former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Todd Richards taking over the reigns and bringing an up-tempo, puck-possession system. Richards spent last season as an assistant coach for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks. He led WBS to the 2008 Calder Final.
In addition to changing head coaches, the Wild also switched general managers for the first time in team history, replacing long-time NHL executive Doug Risebrough with first-time GM Chuck Fletcher, who teamed with Ray Shero the past three seasons to build the Penguins into a Stanley Cup champion. Franchise scoring leader Marian Gaborik was allowed to depart to the New York Rangers as a free agent, with shifty Martin Havlat taking his place as face of the franchise (Read Player Spotlight below).

Joining Havlat as a new face up front is former Penguin Petr Sykora. Deadly when left uncovered in the high-slot area, Sykora provided secondary scoring the past two seasons in Pittsburgh paired on a line with Evgeni Malkin, scoring 53 times during the regular season. Fletcher acquired a face familiar to both he and Richards when he traded for Kyle Brodziak, who played for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in ’06-07 when the Edmonton Oilers loaned players there. The 25-year-old had 11 goals and 27 points in ’08-09 with the Oilers. Recently the Wild acquired Chuck Kobasew from the Boston Bruins. Kobasew scored 21 times for the Bruins last season, but was caught in a numbers game due to their depth up front.

Defensively the Wild added a couple of wily defensive-minded defenders when they signed free agents Greg Zanon from Nashville and Shane Hnidy from Boston. Zanon offers a shot-blocking presence to the blue line while Hnidy’s forte is his physical play.
Captain Mikko Koivu has developed into a younger version of older brother and long-time Montreal captain, Saku. A slick playmaker and smart defensive player, Koivu led the Wild with a career-high 67 points (20G-47A). He is tied with veteran Andrew Brunette and Eric Belanger for the team lead with 10 points (3G-7A) through 12 games. Brunette continues to find open creases in the offensive zone to hit the back of the net, as he leads Minnesota with seven goals in ’08-09. In his second tour of duty with the Wild, Brunette finished second on the team behind Owen Nolan with 22 goals last season.

Eric Belanger, a consistent 35-point producer throughout his career as a third-line center, has started this campaign off hot with 10 points (2G-8A), stepping into the void created by Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s injury to anchor the second line. Burly Owen Nolan has enjoyed a late-career renaissance, leading Minnesota with 25 goals last year. Through Thursday night’s action Nolan has 408 career goals and 856 career points. 21-year-old Cal Clutterbuck, solidly-built at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, has earned a reputation as one of the hardest body checkers in the league. Antti Miettinen, one of the game’s more responsible defensive players, tied his career high with 15 goals as his 44 points established a career high. Nathan Smith (’07-08) and Andy Hilbert (’05-06) are two depth forwards who each spent cups of coffee with the Penguins.
Minnesota is led defensively by emerging two-way threat Brent Burns and offensive-minded Marek Zidlicky. After spending time at forward last season under Jacques Lemaire, the 6-foot-5, 219-pound Burns began to reassert himself at both ends of the rink during the second half. He finished the season with eight goals and 27 points playing in 59 games. In ’07-08 Burns had a career year with 15 goals and 43 points. He suited up for Canada in that spring’s World Championships, scoring nine points (3G-6A) in nine games. Zidlicky came over in a trade from Nashville on July 1, 2008. His forte is the offensive zone, as he has scored 40-plus points four of his first five seasons, including three seasons of 12 or more goals.

Nick Schultz, a second-round pick in 2000, has developed into a steady, stay-at-home defender. Tough to beat one-on-one, Schultz has been a mainstay in Minnesota since breaking into the lineup at 19 in 2001. Physical Shane Hnidy has been a bright spot through the early season, registering three assists to go with an even rating. Greg Zanan has struggled at times in his first season with the Wild, posting a minus-9 rating through 12 games.
Minnosota has one of the best in the business in Finnish backstop Niklas Backstrom. The 31-year-old finished third in the league with a 2.33 goals-against average, and fourth with a .923 save percentage while posting a record of 37-24-8 in ’08-09. Backstrom brought a career mark of 93-45-22 into the season with 17 shutouts.

Tough to beat at 6-foot-1, Backstrom is a goalie who will stop most shots he sees, so taking away his sight lines with traffic is imperative. He is also very good at rebound control, so the Penguins must take advantage of any rare pucks that elude his grasp. Through his first 10 games in’09-10, Backstrom is 3-7 with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.

Reserve Josh Harding has excellent career numbers despite a sub-.500 record (19-27-4). A taller netminder in the mold of Backstrom, his goals-against average is 2.49 to go with a .920 save percentage. Harding is currently out with a lower body soreness, leaving rookie Anton Khudobin to temporarily serve as the backup.
Minnesota signed Havlat away from the Chicago Blackhawks to provide a game-breaker up front. Havlat led the Hawks to their best season since 1991-92, pacing the team with 77 points (29G-48A) in 81 games. Prior to last season, however, Havlat had missed 137 games the previous three seasons.

Blessed with a rare combination of speed and finesse, Havlat originally broke into the NHL with the Ottawa Senators, where he spent his first five seasons. Havlat has scored 20-plus goals on five separate occasions. Last season for the Blackhawks he tied with Alex Ovechkin for second in the league with 63 even-strength points.
Minnesota has been forced to play without their most creative offensive forward with Pierre-Marc Bouchard sidelined indefinitely due to a concussion suffered on Oct. 6. Bouchard was third on the Wild with 46 points (16G-30A) in ’08-09. Defenseman Kim Johnsson, a solid two-way blueliner, has been out sine Oct. 3 with an undisclosed upper body injury. Backup goaltender Josh Harding is out with lower body soreness.
"I had a feeling something good was going to happen. It did, and hopefully it gets our line [with Martin Havlat] going."

  – Former Penguins Petr Sykora speaking to the Star-Tribune after his goal and assist helped spark a 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday.

10.8: Average penalty minutes per game for Minnesota in ’08-09, third-lowest figure in the NHL behind Carolina (9.8) and Detroit (10.0). 

Author: Jason Seidling

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