Good morning hockey fans. Welcome to Tampa, Florida where the Pens will battle the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first end of back-to-back contests for Pittsburgh.
The Pens will enter tonight’s contest a bruised and battered team. The team was already missing third-line center Nick Bonino due to injury. Yesterday they learned that they will be down two more centers for the foreseeable future.
Evgeni Malkin did not make the road trip and will miss tonight’s game against the Lightning and tomorrow’s contest against the Florida Panthers with a lower-body injury. He remained in Pittsburgh on a rehab assignment and will be evaluated after the weekend.
Eric Fehr, who suffered a “significant lower-body injury” in the team’s 6-5 win against Ottawa on Tuesday, will be out longer term. The Pens have recalled Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson and Oskar Sundqvist from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to fill out the roster.
MORNING SKATE DEETS The Pens held an optional morning skate. The only healthy player that did not take part was forward Phil Kessel. Due to the optional, the Pens did not skate in line rushes. But after asking a few of the guys who their linemates will be, I parsed the following projections (though these are not official):
The team did not work on the power play, and Sullivan did not say who would take Malkin’s spot on the man-advantage or Fehr’s on the PK. I guess we’ll wait until game time.
A CLOSER LOOK The Pens’ depth will really be tested this weekend against two really quality teams. Pittsburgh entered the season with five quality centers in Crosby, Malkin, Bonino, Fehr and Cullen. The question was what the team would do with all of those centers? Who would move to wing?
With injuries to Malkin, Bonino and Fehr, now the question the coaching staff is asking is which winger can be moved to center. Kevin Porter, who has played center in his career, will make the transition. And the recall of Sundqvist gives them some flexibility down the middle. But their center depth is being stretched to the max.
In fact, the team’s depth in general is being put to the test. Just consider that the entire bottom-6 consists of players that began the season with WBS. The Pens will sink or swim with their prospects for the time being.
But it is also an incredible opportunity for the younger players to make their mark.
“It think it’s a great opportunity for them. I told them that,” Sullivan said. “Based on my experience around the league, this is how young players break into the league and have an opportunity to establish themselves and make an imprint.
“I encourage our guys to embrace it. Don’t just try to get through the game. Be difference makers. Let’s go out there with an attitude and determination that we’re going to be difference makers when we get on the ice. And I believe they will.”
SUNDQVIST DEBUT It’s been a crazy 24 hours for Sundqvist. Yesterday after practice he was told to pack immediately and catch a plane for Tampa Bay. He spent the entire day traveling and didn’t arrive in Tampa until after 10 p.m. Though it’s a small price for playing in the NHL.
“It’s been stressful, but at the same time I’m really happy to be here and get a chance in the big leagues,” Sundqvist said. “It’s going to be a big night for me. Everyone that played their first game told me it’ll be exciting tonight.”
The Swedish-born Sundqvist, 21, is in his first full season in North America, playing 39 games for WBS. He’s been used in a defensive, checking role against opposing team’s top scoring lines. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound center will make his NHL debut tonight.
“The (difference) is that it’s faster up (in the NHL),” Sundqvist said. “That’s the biggest point. There are big guys (in the AHL), but the speed is different up here.”
Sullivan coached Sunqvist for the first two-plus months of the season, so he knows what to expect from his young centerman.
“’Sunny’ is a pretty solid two-way player. He has good awareness in the D zone,” Sullivan said. “He has a big body. He leans on people. He checks well. And for a big guy he can skate. He’s a mobile guy. His game in (WBS) will transfer. He’s not going to dazzle you with flashy plays, but he’s a guy that plays the game the right way. He’s hard to play against because of his size. He has a long reach and he has a good stick.”
THIS ‘N AT *Crosby on feeling more pressure to score with Malkin out: “Maybe. I think we put pressure on ourselves every game to produce. I don’t think we should change our mentality right now or force things. We’re playing good hockey.”
*Cullen on playing between two speedsters: “I told Phil that I’ll be the slowest going up the ice, but I’ll be the fastest coming back.”