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Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (26-14-1-53) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (15-15-10-40)
Where: St. Pete Times Forum

Saturday, January 2, 3 p.m.
Radio: 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:
This will be the second of four meetings in 2009-10 between the Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning and the first one in Florida. Pittsburgh won the first matchup, 4-1, on Oct. 17. Sergei Gonchar led the way with a goal and an assist while Sidney Crosby notched two helpers. Pascal Dupuis, Bill Guerin and Mike Rupp also scored for the Penguins. Steven Stamkos had the lone Tampa Bay goal.




Last Meeting: Oct. 17, 2009
  PIT 4 - TB 1
Game Highlights
AP Recap
Draw More Penalties: Forget for a minute the Penguins overall rank when they have the man-advantage. There is simply too much talent at their disposal for their power play to remain in the cellar. The power play has really shown signs of breaking out as of late with four scores in the past four games. As a team the Penguins need to give them more chances to work with so they can continue to build upon their recent confidence. Pittsburgh has drawn only five power plays over their previous three games.  

Score Early:
The Penguins have hit one of the few rough patches they have encountered since Dan Bylsma took over as head coach on Feb. 15, 2009. In their past five games they have won only once. Scoring early in the game against the Lightning could inject the shot of adrenaline the team needs as they begin the back nine of their season.  
Despite a plethora of top-end offensive talent, the Lightning have struggled since the National Hockey League returned from the lockout. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup prior to the NHL shutting down for a year, but hasn’t been able to make it past the quarterfinal round in two playoff appearances since then, going the past two seasons without qualifying for the postseason tournament. The Lightning’s 66 points last season were the second-lowest total in the league. Tampa Bay is currently in the competition for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference as they sit in a four-way tie for the ninth position, two points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers.

Faced with increased expectations  in ’08-09 after drafting Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall, signing free agents Vaclav Prospal and Radim Vrbata, and trading for Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Andrej Meszaros, Tampa Bay stuttered out of the gate, firing head coach Barry Melrose 16 games into his first season and replacing him with former Penguin winger Rick Tocchet. In his first stint behind an NHL bench, Tocchet guided the Lightning to a 19-33-14 record over the final 66 games. He was given the job permanently following the season.
Learning how difficult it is to blend a vast array of new faces into the lineup in one offseason after their struggles in ’08-09, Tampa Bay elected to make smaller-scale upgrades for this season. They did spend money on two proven, former all-star players in winger Alex Tanguay and defenseman Mattias Ohlund. Tanguay has recorded 50-or-more points in seven of his nine NHL seasons, scoring more than 20 goals on five occasions. Ohlund is a solid two-way defender brought in from the Vancouver Canucks in part to help mentor 18-year-old No. 2-overall selection Victor Hedman. Ohlund provides a good mix of skill and toughness, as well as the ability to log a ton of minutes, spending an average of 24:59 on the ice per game entering the 2009-10 season.

Hedman, the top prospect on many draft boards earlier this summer, is off to a fast start in his first season in North America. The 6-foot-6 rearguard has 12 points (3G-9A) through his first 38 games. Hedman ranks second on the team only to Ohlund by averaging 22:14 time on ice per game.

Joining Ohlund and Hedman as new faces on the back end are veteran sandpaper types Matt Walker, David Hale and Kurtis Foster. Walker had a breakout season last year in his only campaign with the Chicago Blackhawks, appearing in a career-high 65 games, scoring 14 points (1G-13A) and amassing 79 penalty minutes. Hale came via trade with the Phoenix Coyotes in a deal that sent Radim Vrbata back to the desert. Hale has spent time with New Jersey and Calgary in addition to his time in Phoenix. Foster was coming into his own with the Minnesota Wild prior to suffering a fractured left femur in a game against the San Jose Sharks on March 20, 2008. The injury kept him out until well into the ’08-09 season, when he returned late to play 10 games for the Wild. 
As the faces around them change almost with the seasons, veteran superstars Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier continue to spearhead the Lightning offensive attack. St. Louis provided his usual production, scoring 30 times and assisting on 50 others in all 82 games, but Lecavalier struggled to replicate his success of the previous two seasons. The 29-year-old Lecavalier has watched his goal total fall from a league-leading 52 in ’06-07 to 40 the next season, down to 29 last year – his lowest total since scoring 20 goals in 2001-02. A slow start to this season cost Lecavalier a spot on the Canadian Olympic team but the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner has improved his play as the season has gone on and is currently tied with Steven Stamkos (See Player Spotlight below) for second on the team with 37 points (9G-28A).

At age 34 the 5-foot-9 St. Louis continues to dash and dart around the ice to score big goal after big goal. Lecavalier’s omission from the Canadian squad wasn’t a shock, but St. Louis’ definitely was. Look for him to be the first player to get a call in the event of an injury because his 44 points (8G-36A) rank 11th in the league as of Saturday and are fourth-best among all Canadian players. If there is one criticism of his game it’s that the six-time 25-goal scorer has lit the lamp only eight times thus far. But that’s nitpicking.

Pittsburgh native and former Penguin Ryan Malone is off to a hot start for the Lightning and is ticketed to play a starring role for the United States Olympic team. He ranks second on the Lightning and is tied for the lead among all American-born players with 19 goals. Malone rebounded from a slow start last season to record 26 goals and 45 points in his first season in Tampa Bay. Much like Lecavalier, offseason addition Alex Tanguay struggled to begin the season, but has found his offensive game as the season has unfolded. More of a playmaking type from the perimeter, Tanguay places fifth on the Lightning with 22 points (6G-16A) in 39 games. Steve Downie, acquired early last season from the Philadelphia Flyers, has settled down on the ice and his production is up as a result.. He still ranks among the league leaders in penalty minutes with 92 but the agitator has also contributed 16 points (7G-9A) in 38 games. Rookie Blair Jones has dressed for only 10 games but the combination of he and NHL penalty-minute leader Zenon Konopka (131 PIM) give the Lightning a great 1-2 combination on faceoffs. Konopka has won 62.1 percent of his draws and Jones is at 57.1 percent.  
After using an NHL-record 22 defensemen in ’08-09, the Lightning have built a solid stable of blueliners capable of getting the job done in all ends of the rink. Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros and Lukas Krajicek are the lone holdovers who saw significant minutes with Tampa Bay last season. Newcomer Kurtis Foster has emerged as the Lightning’s top offensive option from the point with 15 points (6G-9A) in 30 games. During his previous nine games Foster has accumulated nine points (3G-6A) while serving as the quarterback on the power play.

Victor Hedman has met all the lofty expectations hoisted upon him through his first 38 games. He has seen minutes in every phase as a 19-year-old and he ranks second on the team among defensemen with 12 points (3G-9A), while at the same time posting a solid plus-2 rating. Hedman has spent a lot of time paired with fellow Swede Mattias Ohlund. The long-time Vancouver Canuck has been a valuable mentor for Hedman in addition to matching up against opponents’ best forwards and averaging a team-high 23:57 of ice time.

Much was expected of Meszaros after Tampa Bay traded two of their top-six defensemen, Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard, along with a first-round draft pick, to get the rugged defender. The 24-year-old Meszaros played all 82 games each of his three seasons in Ottawa, never recording less than 35 points. He had 16 points (2G-14A) in 52 games during his first season with the Lightning. Meszaros is on pace to post 16 points for the second-consecutive season but he’s looking to improve his play in the defensive zone. His minus-13 rating is the lowest on the Lightning. Krajicek hopes to have found a home after bouncing from Florida to Vancouver prior to landing in Tampa. The former first-round selection set career highs in assists (17), points (19) and ice time (19:37) in ’08-09. His playing time has gone down this season as he has only one assist through 23 games.    
Unable to adequately replace Nikolai Khabibulin, who left for Chicago post-lockout, the Lightning two years ago traded the third member of their ‘Big Three,’ center Brad Richards, and acquired Mike Smith in exchange from the Dallas Stars to be their go-to-guy in goal. Smith struggled at the outset of the 2009-10 season and was sharing time with Antero Niittymaki earlier, but has now rounded his game back into form. He has made five-consecutive starts and has posted a 3-1-1 record, 2.38 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in those games. Overall the 6-foot-4 backstop has an 8-10-6 mark, 2.97 goals-against average and .904 save percentage.

Last season Smith was unable to play after Jan. 30 due to post-concussion syndrome, the symptoms of which had been plaguing him for weeks prior to Smith succumbing to the injury. Before leaving the lineup, Smith posted a 14-18-9 record with a respectable 2.62 goals-against average.

Niittymaki arrived from Philadelphia over the summer to serve as Smith’s backup, but has already made 17 starts. Named to the Finish Olympic team earlier this week, Niittymaki has registered the stronger numbers of the two Lightning goaltenders with a 7-5-4 record, 2.46 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. In 14 career appearances against the Penguins Niittymaki has a 4-6-3 record with a goals-against average of more than four. He made 29 saves while taking the loss against Pittsburgh on Oct. 17. 
When Steven Stamkos didn’t take the NHL by storm last season like previous No. 1-overall selections Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane there were questions raised as to whether he was worth being selected so high. And do those questions seem silly now. Since the midpoint of last season Stamkos has developed into possibly the Lightning’s best player.

Still only 19, Stamkos’ blazing start to this season earned himself consideration for the Canadian Olympic team. His attempt came up short, but if NHL players head to Moscow in 2014, you can be certain he will be going. The total package with speed, quickness, a lethal shot and outstanding vision, Stamkos leads the Lightning with 21 goals and is tied for second with 37 points.
- Defenseman Matt Walker will be out a couple more days with an unspecified lower-body injury.
- Tough-guy Todd Fedoruk will miss the next few weeks due to a lower-body injury.
- Jeff Halpern was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 23 with a lower-body injury.
“You want to be out there in all situations and be a player that can be counted on offensively and defensively. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

- Lightning second-year forward Steven Stamkos talking to the Lightning’s official team website on adding penalty-killing chores to his list of duties.

4-0-3: Tampa Bay has picked up at least one point in each of their past seven games, posting a record of 4-0-3.
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Author: Jason Seidling

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