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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Lightning

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (12-6-0) vs. LIGHTNING (9-7-1)
WHEN: February 24, 2013 - 7:30 p.m.  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: NBC Sports Network, ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Tampa Bay Lightning got off to a scorching start this season, winning six of their first seven games. But although they dropped seven of their last 10, those three wins have come in their last four games. Tampa Bay currently leads the Southeast Division with 19 points.

As has been the case for a few years now, the Lightning’s strength is their offense. They have 66 goals through 17 games for an average of 3.88 per game, which leads the entire NHL. To no one’s surprise, Steven Stamkos is the league leader in points with 26. After going goalless in five straight games from Feb. 5-14, Stamkos has since scored in four straight – finding the back of the net five times over that span. Overall, his 12 goals lead the Bolts by a considerable margin.

Veterans Martin St. Louis and Vincent LeCavalier have been around for what feels like forever, but their impact hasn’t lessened. St. Louis may be 37 years old, but the playmaking winger is right up there with Stamkos and the rest of the NHL's point leaders as he’s got 23 (4G-19A) through 17 games. Captain LeCavalier is also playing well, as he recently had a five-game point streak (2G-3A) and has added a grittiness to his game. He’s made a concerted effort to add more energy and physicality to his game, and that’s shown in his team-leading 51 hits.

Teddy Purcell and rookie Cory Conacher have been thriving alongside Stamkos on the first line. Conacher, who signed with the Lightning two years ago as an undrafted free agent after four years at Canisius College, is the NHL rookie scoring leader with 16 points (6G-10A) in 16 games. Purcell ranks third (tied) on the team in scoring with 17 points (5G-13A).

Tampa Bay’s plus-13 goal differential ranks second (tied) in the Eastern Conference, but that’s more indicative of their ability to score goals than their ability to keep them out of their net – as their defense can be leaky. They rank 23rd of 30 teams in goals against. The Penguins exploited this last year, as they lit up the Lightning for 18 goals in the last three games between the teams in 2011-12. Victor Hedman (plus-11 rating) has been paired with newcomer Sami Salo (team-leading plus-12 rating), who’s been part of Tampa Bay’s dangerous first power-play unit (the Bolts are also one of the league’s best in that category – surprise, surprise). Overall, Matt Carle is the team leader in minutes per game and is skating alongside Eric Brewer.

The Bolts let Dwayne Roloson go in the offseason and acquired goalie Anders Lindback from Nashville in a trade. They’ve made the 6-foot-6 netminder their No. 1 guy, and he’s settled into his position as Tampa Bay’s starting goalie. He’s posted a decent 7-4-1 record through 12 starts, but has a .895 save percentage and 3.12 goals-against average. He is backed up by Mathieu Garon.

(Getty Images)

Peter Pupello of the Lightning’s website reported last month that Lecavalier restructured his training regimen this past summer and through the lockout and made a concerted effort to add more energy and physicality to his game. That’s certainly manifested this season, as the big captain leads the team with 51 hits and has even dropped the gloves on occasion. Pair that grittiness with his ability to produce (he ranks third on the team with 17 points), and you can expect Lecavalier to be a force on Sunday.

With Evgeni Malkin out for Sunday’s game against the Lightning, Sutter will slot up into his spot and center Beau Bennett and James Neal. To play alongside the red-hot Neal especially is a big opportunity for Sutter, who usually sees tough minutes against other team’s top players and is counted on to be defensively responsible. It will be interesting to see how Sutter gels with Neal and Bennett, especially against a team he’s very familiar with having played four seasons in the Southeast Division as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.

A lot of good ones today, so bear with us!
The Penguins have posted a four-game home winning streak against the Lightning. Tampa Bay’s last win in Pittsburgh was a 2-0 victory on March 31, 2010 at Mellon Arena. During this streak, the Penguins have outscored the Lightning by a 25-5 margin. Those numbers include a pair of 8-1 Pittsburgh victories on Jan. 5, 2011 and Feb. 25, 2012.

Last season the Lightning won the first meeting between the teams, 4-1 on Nov. 17 at St. Pete Times Forum. The Penguins responded by winning the last 3 games by an 18-6 margin.

The Penguins have posted dominating numbers against teams from the Southeast Division over the last three seasons. During that stretch, the Penguins have gone 32-12-1 (.722 pct.) in 45 games against Southeast foes. This season, the Penguins are 4-1 against the Southeast Division. The only loss was a 4-2 setback on Jan. 25 at Winnipeg. During that same three-year stretch, Pittsburgh has gone 19-2-1 (.886 pct.) in 22 home games against Southeast Division foes. The Penguins have currently posted a 13-game home unbeaten stretch (12-0-1) against Southeast teams.

Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos is without question one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL. Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, Stamkos leads the NHL in both goals (167) and points (307). Pittsburgh, however, has done a pretty decent job of containing Stamkos during his career. In 16 career meetings with the Penguins, Stamkos has tallied 13 points (3G-10A). The Montreal Canadiens (12 points in 16 games played) are the only Eastern Conference team Stamkos has scored fewer points against. Stamkos has gone two straight games against the Penguins without a point and six straight without a goal.

James Neal enters Sunday’s game with points in eight of his last 10 games (7G-5A). He has seven goals over his previous nine games – with six of those tallies being power-play markers. Neal has now scored a team-leading 12 goals this year, tying him for the NHL lead with Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek. Neal leads the NHL with eight power-play goals and four game-winning goals.

Since the beginning of last season, only Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (71 goals) and Evgeni Malkin (54) have scored more goals than the 52 Neal has netted. Neal’s 52 goals pace all NHL wingers during that span – four more than Marian Gaborik (48). In his last three games against the Lightning, Neal has notched eight points (2G-6A).

Kris Letang has assists in four straight games and in seven of his previous nine games entering Sunday. Sunday he can equal his career-long five-game assist/point streak. He last notched assists in five straight games between Oct. 27-Nov. 11, 2011. Letang currently places second (tied) among NHL defensemen this season with 13 points. Letang has collected 10 of his 13 points at even strength –the highest total among all NHL blueliners. Over his last nine games, Letang has notched nine points (2G-7A). Letang has played 25-plus minutes in 10 of his 15 games.

Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury owns a season-high four-game winning streak entering Sunday. In his last eight starts, Fleury is 7-1 with a 1.88 goals-against average (15 goals allowed/478 minutes) and a .930 save percentage (199 saves/214 shots). Fleury’s nine wins tie him for the NHL lead with Montreal’s Carey Price. In his last 29 starts dating back to Feb. 21 of last season, Fleury has posted a 21-6-1 record (.768 pct.). His 21 victories tie him with Ilya Bryzgalov for the most in that span. Against the Lightning, Fleury has posted a 6-4-3 record at home to accompany a 2.35 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.

Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin has been ruled out of Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay while he undergoes further health evaluation, according to head coach Dan Bylsma.

Malkin left in the third period of the Penguins’ 3-1 victory Friday night at CONSOL Energy Center after sliding hard into the end boards. He did not return to the game and did not participate in the team’s optional practice at Southpointe Saturday.

UPDATE: Following Sunday's morning skate, Bylsma said that Malkin will continue to be re-evaluated by doctors. He added that a concussion has not been ruled out, but he hasn't suffered from headaches or disorientation at any point in time.

"(Malkin) will continue to be evaluated by our doctors tonight before the game," Bylsma said. "At this point in time we have not ruled out an concussion. I am happy to report that he has not been suffering from headaches or disorientation."


F Evgeni Malkin

F Ryan Malone, lower body
D Mattias Ohlund, knee
D Matt Taormina, upper body

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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