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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Senators

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (8-5-0) vs. SENATORS (7-4-2)
WHEN: February 13, 2013 - 7:00 p.m.  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Senators got off to a strong start this season, but had lost four of their last five contests entering their Tuesday tilt with Sabres. But a 2-0 victory over Buffalo means that the Senators now have 16 points, which ties them with the Penguins and puts them one spot ahead of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Senators suffered a big blow at the end of January – right after their 2-1 shootout loss to the Penguins, in fact – when they learned center Jason Spezza would have to undergo back surgery for a herniated disc and would likely miss 6-8 weeks. It’s uncertain whether the dominating center, who is Ottawa’s top forward, will be able to return before the end of the regular season. The Senators’ offense has clearly been affected by Spezza’s absence; since he’s been sidelined the club’s forwards have been struggling to produce. 

The forward Ottawa needs to step up the most, winger Milan Michalek, is in the midst of a scoring slump that’s seen him produce just two goals in 13 games. Michalek certainly misses Spezza, as he scored a team-leading 35 goals last season playing alongside him. But Michalek, a skilled sniper with size, was a proven goal scorer before coming to Ottawa and the team needs him more than ever. Forward Kyle Turris has also been slumping – after starting the season with four goals in four games, he hasn’t scored in his last nine (though he does have six assists in that span).

Top prospects Mika Zibenejad and Stephane da Costa have gotten big opportunities with the NHL club after being recalled from the American Hockey League following Spezza’s injury. The 19-year-old Zibenajed, who was the sixth overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, started Tuesday’s game between Michalek and captain Daniel Alfredsson. However, coach Paul MacLean said that da Costa, a prized free-agent signing out of Merrimack College, could get a look on that line at some point as well.

Though the Senators may be struggling offensively, overall their defense has been steady. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Senators had the league’s top-ranked defense – averaging just 1.69 goals against per game. It’s anchored by goaltender Craig Anderson, who has put himself in early consideration for the Vezina Trophy with his magnificent play. Anderson has been an absolute workhorse for the Senators, as he's started 11 of 13 games after getting the nod Tuesday in Buffalo – where he made 42 saves for the shutout to improve his record to 7-2-2. As the Senators had two days off prior to Tuesday’s game and have another two days off after Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Anderson is getting the start against the Penguins.

In other news defensively, ast year’s Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who scored for the Senators on Tuesday, has been eating huge minutes on Ottawa’s blue line as he ranks second in the NHL with an average of 27:53 minutes per game. He continues to be a dangerous threat offensively and on the power play alongside Sergei Gonchar.

(Getty Images)

This will be the first time the Penguins see the Senators captain this season, as Alfredsson did not dress for their Jan. 28 meeting due to illness. With usual top-line center Jason Spezza out long-term due to injury, Alfredsson has been moved to the first line with Milan Michalek. Though the ageless Alfredsson has four assists in his last five games, he hasn’t scored a goal over that same stretch. As a group Ottawa’s forwards have been struggling to score, with Spezza out the team needs them to produce. Look for their leader to elevate his game for his club at a crucial time.

The Penguins center has points in five of his last six games, totaling three goals and two assists over that span. He’s been a net-front fixture on the second power-play unit, scoring a goal from just outside the blue paint by tipping a point shot in New Jersey on Feb. 9. Sutter is a lanky center who can protect and move the puck well; the Penguins will need him to be strong in that area on Wednesday – which is his 300th NHL game – as they want to play in the offensive zone and keep the Senators trapped in their end.

  • Thursday marks the first time this season that the Penguins will play two consecutive home games.
  • The Penguins have gone 4-2 in their last six home games against Ottawa. During that stretch they have scored 23 goals for an average of 3.8 goals per game.
  • Pittsburgh is attempting to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season Thursday.
  • The Penguins and Senators have matched up against each other as well as any two teams in the NHL over the past couple of years. Dating back to the 2006-07 season – a span of 25 regular-season games – the Senators have posted 13 wins in the series, versus 12 victories for the Penguins. During that span, the Penguins overall record is 12-11-2, while the Senators are 13-7-5. Including the Penguins' 2-1 shootout victory at Scotiabank Place on Jan. 27 of this season, six of the last 25 games (24%) between these two teams have gone to overtime or a shootout.
  • Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is looking to end a two-game pointless stretch Thursday against the Senators. Prior to being held without a point this past weekend, Crosby had a six-game assist/point streak that tied him with San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg for the longest such streak in the NHL this year. During his streak, Crosby had 12 points (2G-10A). Crosby has notched at least one point in six of his last eight home games against the Senators. During that stretch, he has 11 points (2G-9A).
  • Evgeni Malkin is currently tied for the league lead with 13 assists after picking up a helper on James Neal’s power-play goal on Sunday night. Malkin has collected eight assists over his last seven games entering tonight’s contest.
  • Pittsburgh enters Tuesday’s game ranked fifth in the NHL – and 3rd in the Eastern Conference – with a 52.8% faceoff winning percentage this season. As a team, the Penguins have gone 427-381 on draws, with captain Sidney Crosby leading the way with 171 total faceoff wins, the second-highest total in the NHL behind only the Philadelphia Flyers Claude Giroux (179 wins). For the season, Crosby has posted a 55.9% faceoff winning percentage. That includes a 19-5 (79%) performance on Sunday night against New Jersey. Crosby has won 50% or more of his faceoffs in 11 of the first 13 games this season.

Pens coach Dan Bylsma said that defensemen Matt Niskanen and Kris Letang will be game-time decisions for Wednesday.

"Matt Niskanen and Kris Letang skated with the team again today and are moving close to being able and ready to play," Bylsma said. "We'll see with the doctor. They'll be game-time decisions. Our lineup will be game-time involving them."

D Kris Letang, lower body
D Matt Niskanen, lower body

C Jason Spezza, herniated disc in back
C Peter Regin, upper body

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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