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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Lightning

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (30-10-0) vs. LIGHTNING (17-20-2)
WHEN: April 11, 2013 - 7:30 p.m.  |  WHERE: Tampa Bay Times Forum
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS, NBC Sports Network  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Penguins make their first and only trip of the season to Tampa Bay on Wednesday, where they will close out their series with the Lightning. The Lightning are 5-0-1 in their last six home games and their postseason hopes are still flickering, but barely – as they’re six points out of the eighth playoff spot in the East.

Pittsburgh got to know the enigmatic Guy Boucher and his mysterious scar in the 2011 playoffs, when the rookie head coach led the Lightning past the Penguins in a seven-game first-round series and all the way to the conference final. But Boucher’s time in Tampa Bay ended last month. Boucher, who was in his third season with the Lightning, got fired on March 24 with his team in the midst of a disappointing skid and in danger of missing the playoffs for a second straight season after that magical run. Tampa Bay hired its American Hockey League head coach Jon Cooper to take over. Cooper was named the top coach in the AHL last season after winning the Calder Cup with Norfolk, and has tutored a lot of the current Lightning players in the minors.

Tampa Bay sent promising rookie Cory Conacher to Ottawa for goalie Ben Bishop at the trade deadline. Bishop has starred in four straight starts with his new team while Anders Lindback is out with a high-ankle sprain, getting a 45-save shutout in his Lightning debut. That tandem is the tallest in the NHL, with Bishop at 6-foot-7 and Lindback at 6-foot-6. Lindback participated in Tuesday’s morning skate and said after that he’s close to returning. It remains to be seen whether that is Thursday against the Penguins, but Cooper did say he wants to see Lindback in a game and views him and Bishop as starters “1A and 1A.” In the meantime, veteran Mathieu Garon is the backup.

Pittsburgh should see former Penguin Ryan Malone for the first time this season. He’s played just 17 games due to injury, returning to the lineup Tuesday after missing nine games in a row with a shoulder injury. While ‘Bugsy’ is back, the Lightning recently lost top defenseman Victor Hedman to a lower-body injury. With him out, Tampa Bay called up Mark Barberio – last year’s top AHL defenseman – to take his place in the lineup.

All those updates aside, the Lightning are as offensively gifted as ever. Steven Stamkos, who has three goals and five points in Tampa Bay’s two previous games against Pittsburgh and is tied for the NHL lead in goals (26), is closing the gap between him and league leader Sidney Crosby in the NHL points race. He has 50 to Crosby’s 56. And actually, Martin St. Louis is right behind both of them with 40 assists and 49 points – which ranks third in the NHL. That’s where their team offense also ranks.

(Getty Images)

Benoit Pouliot - Steven Stamkos - Martin St. Louis
Alex Killorn - Vincent Lecavalier - Teddy Purcell
Tom Pyatt - Nate Thompson - B.J. Crombeen
Brett Connolly - Tyler Johnson - Richard Panik

Matt Carle - Sami Salo
Keith Aulie - Eric Brewer
Mark Barberio - Radko Gudas

(Getty Images)

The playmaking winger is quietly among the league’s top point-getters, ranking third behind teammate Steven Stamkos and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby with 49 points (9G-40A). After getting two assists on Tuesday against Ottawa, St. Louis now has 901 career points – moving him into 97th place on the NHL’s all-time points list. He may not be the biggest guy on the ice, but his battle level, spirit level and competitiveness is always impressive. And with his team still having a chance (however slim) to make the playoffs, look for St. Louis – back on a line with Stamkos – to be leading with his play on the ice.

Time to give Mark Eaton the credit he deserves. He has been a consistent, steady, calming presence on Pittsburgh’s blue line since he signed with the team in February and the team is 15-1 with him in the lineup. With Kris Letang and Paul Martin out, Eaton has slid up to the top pairing with Brooks Orpik and has been solid there. Eaton has logged over 22 minutes playing against other teams' top lines the last two games, both season highs, and blocked three shots on Tuesday in Carolina – including a crucial one in the waning seconds of regulation. The Penguins will need him to be big again against the talented Lightning on Thursday.

- The Penguins won both games against the Lightning in Pittsburgh this season – clinching the season series for the second-straight season.
- Pittsburgh has won five straight games against the Lightning – tied for its longest all-time win streak against them (also achieved Dec. 11, 1993-Feb. 4, 1995).
- The Penguins have outscored the Lightning 27-12 during this five-game winning streak.
- The Penguins have gone 7-2 in their last nine overall meetings with the Lightning.
- Pittsburgh has gone 6-4 in its last 10 visits to the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The Penguins clinched the Atlantic Division title with their 4-3 defeat of Carolina on Tuesday night – their first division crown since 2007-08. While the Penguins have posted a NHL-best 222 victories since the start of the 2008-09 season, they had yet to win a division crown during that period before this season. Pittsburgh has now qualified for the playoffs seven consecutive seasons – the second-longest stretch of consecutive seasons qualifying for the playoffs in franchise history behind the 11-year run the Penguins had been 1990-91 and 2000-01. Pittsburgh’s streak is the third- longest active streak in the NHL behind Detroit (21 consecutive years) and San Jose (8) – and the longest among Eastern Conference teams.

Although Sidney Crosby has missed four straight games and most of a fifth due to a broken jaw, he continues to hold a six-point lead in the NHL scoring race over Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, 56-50. Including Thursday’s game, the Penguins have eight games left (3 home; 5 road), while the Lightning have nine remaining (4 home; 5 road). Crosby is seeking his second scoring title – and first since 2006-07. Stamkos has never won the Art Ross Trophy. Stamkos has five points (3G-2A) in the first two games against the Penguins this season after entering the year having gone back-to-back games without a point and six-straight games without a goal against Pittsburgh.

The Penguins have withstood losses to several of their top players the last two weeks thanks to the contributions of the players they’ve acquired via trade:
*Brenden Morrow scored his first goal as a Penguin against Carolina on Tuesday. He now has two points (1G-1A) in his last three games. Since joining the team, Morrow leads all Penguins forwards with 21 hits.
*Jussi Jokinen has recorded points in both games played with Pittsburgh (1G-1A). He has also gone 19-8 (70.4%) on draws.
*Jarome Iginla had the primary assist on Evgeni Malkin’s game-winning goal against Carolina. He ranks third on the team with 13 shots since making his Penguins debut March 30.
*Douglas Murray is tied for the team lead with 15 blocked shots and he ranks second with 22 hits since making his debut on March 28.

The Penguins have posted a 23-8-1 record in 32 games against teams from the Southeast Division over their past two seasons. Only the Washington Capitals (24 wins) have won more games during that span. This season the Penguins are 9-3 against the Southeast Division. Evgeni Malkin has posted 44 points (18G-26A) in 26 games against Southeast Division teams the past two seasons – an average of 1.69 points per game.

Marc-Andre Fleury has a league-best 20 wins, the fifth-straight season and the sixth time in the last seven years he has reached that mark. Fleury enters tonight’s game having gone 10-1 in his last 13 appearances dating back to March 4. During those games he has posted a 2.20 goals-against average (26GA/708MIN) and a .924 save percentage (314 saves/340 shots). Over the last two seasons, Fleury has won a NHL-best 62 games – five more than second-place Pekka Rinne (57). Fleury has won four straight games against the Lightning. He is 11-5 with a 2.25 goals-against average in his last 16 starts against the Lightning.

Game notes courtesy of manager of communications Jason Seidling


F Sidney Crosby, broken jaw
D Kris Letang, lower body
D Paul Martin, broken bone in hand
F James Neal, concussion


G Anders Lindback, ankle
D Victor Hedman, lower body

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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