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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Lightning

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (13-8-0) vs. LIGHTNING (9-11-1)
WHEN: March 4, 2013 - 7:30 p.m.  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS, NBC Sports Network  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Tampa Bay Lightning started the season as arguably the Eastern Conference’s hottest team, as they won six of their first seven games. But they’ve been slumping something fierce ever since then, winning just three of the next 13 games. They come to Pittsburgh having lost four straight games and five of the past six.

After an embarrassing 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday – where the Bolts were outshot 20-3 after the first period alone – general manager Steve Yzerman told Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times, "We just look a bit rattled right now and unsure of ourselves and unsure of what we're doing and our responsibilities.” The Lightning followed that up with a much-improved effort on Saturday in Boston, but still fell 3-2 to the Bruins.

A lot just hasn’t been going right for the Bolts, but their offense continues to be strong. Still the league’s best, in fact. The Bolts rank just ahead of Pittsburgh in that category with an average of 3.48 goals per game. Young superstar Steven Stamkos continues to tear up the league as he enters Monday’s game on a nine-game point streak, where he’s totaled eight goals and 15 points during that stretch. He was named the NHL’s ‘First Star’ for February, posting 10 goals and 20 points in 14 games that month, and his 15 total goals lead the NHL.

More bright spots for the Bolts have been their rookies. Former Canisius College standout Cory Conacher recently saw a six-game point streak come to an end, while coach Guy Boucher raved about the play of Harvard alum Alex Killorn in Saturday’s game. Killorn scored one of the Lightning’s two goals on the power play while skating a career-high 19 minutes, seven seconds and seeing time in all special teams situations. He'll move into a top-six role Monday with Benoit Pouliot out (more on that below).

In terms of injuries, former Pen and Upper St. Clair native Ryan Malone, who missed the last 11 games with a lower-body injury, joined the team in Pittsburgh for practice on Sunday – but will not play Monday against the Pens. Neither will Pouliot, who suffered an upper-body injury in the first period on Saturday. However, defenseman Sami Salo, who’s missed two games with an upper-body injury, will be back in the lineup.

Finally, Tampa Bay’s goaltending situation has changed up a bit. Anders Lindback, acquired from Nashville in the offseason, won five of his first six starts and got the nod for 12 of the Lightning’s first 16 games. But he’s a young goalie (24 years old) that still has a lot of learning and growing to do, and had been struggling lately. So veteran Mathieu Garon has been handling the workload, appearing in five straight games (and starting four of them).

(Getty Images)

Despite his team’s struggles, Stamkos is still producing points with a vengeance. The 23-year-old superstar comes to Pittsburgh with a nine-game point streak, where he’s accumulated eight goals and 15 points over that stretch. His 15 goals lead the NHL and his 32 points rank second only to Sidney Crosby. Stamkos is taking his team’s slump hard, so look for the young leader to continue doing everything he possibly can to help the Bolts climb out of their rut.

Malkin is back! After missing the last four games with a concussion, he will return Monday versus Tampa Bay -- a team he absolutely lit up last season. In his last three games against the Lightning last season, Malkin straight up dominated as he scored eight goals (including a pair of hat tricks) and 11 points. He'll be back centering James Neal and Matt Cooke and will return to the top power-play unit.

  • Several of the best players in the NHL will be on display Monday, including four of the top-five point producers, the two leading goal scorers and the top-two assist leaders. Sidney Crosby enters the game with a two-point lead over Steven Stamkos (34-32) in the scoring race. Chris Kunitz (T-3rd, 27 points) and Martin St. Louis (5th, 26 points) place closely behind. Reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner Stamkos again leads the league with 15 goals, while James Neal is tied for second with 13.
  • Monday’s game is a matchup of the top-two highest-scoring teams in the NHL. Pittsburgh leads the NHL with 76 goals, while Tampa Bay ranks second with 73. Both teams are used to getting off to strong starts, as the Penguins lead the NHL with 25 first-period goals and the Lightning rank second (tied) with 23. Both teams also fill the net in the third period. Tampa Bay has scored a NHL-best 33 goals in the final frame, while the Penguins rank third with 27 markers. The Penguins have scored 31 goals in nine home games this season – an average of 3.4 per game.
  • NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby enters Monday with points in four straight games (3G-6A-9PTS). He is coming off his league-leading seventh three-point game of the season (1G-2A) at Montreal on Saturday. He has notched all seven such games over his last 15 contests, during which he has 27 points (7G-20A) –an average of 1.8 per game. This season, Crosby has notched points in seven of nine home games –including five multiple-point efforts.
  • Based upon his career history, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury should be poised to build upon his strong February numbers. In 82 career games played during the month of March, Fleury has posted a 51-18-10 (.696 pct.) record. His 51 victories are by far the most he has notched in any one month, while his 2.35 goals-against average is also his lowest in any one month.
  • Last season, Fleury went 8-2-1 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage in March. Fleury enters Monday’s game having won five straight home games. In those games he has posted a 1.80 goals-against average (8 GA/300 MIN) and a .927 save percentage (114 SAVES/123 SHOTS).

Head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed following Monday's morning skate that Evgeni Malkin will play versus Tampa Bay. He passed his ImPACT test and will be in the lineup. FULL UPDATE HERE.

Defenseman Paul Martin, who has been out of the lineup since suffering a lower-body injury Thursday in Carolina, is considered day-to-day. He will not play Monday night against Tampa Bay, but did skate with strength coach Mike Kadar before the team practices Sunday and Monday.

--Sam Kasan

F Evgeni Malkin, concussion
D Paul Martin, lower body

F Ryan Malone, lower body
F Benoit Pouliot, upper body
D Sami Salo, lower body

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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