Game 54 : Penguins vs. Canadiens

Tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins will attempt to sweep the Montreal Canadiens – the first time the Pens could finish a regular season without a loss to Montreal since the 1998-99 season.

The Penguins, winners of their last nine out of eleven games, and the Canadiens, losers of their last six out of ten games, could not be headed in more different directions. Despite suffering a six game losing streak just weeks ago, the Penguins white-hot play as of late has allowed the team to pull within just two points of their hated rival, Philadelphia, and the four seed in the eastern conference.

The Montreal Canadiens, however, are currently tied with the Carolina Hurricanes with 49 points – knotted up for dead last in the conference. While the Canadiens have allowed just 145 goals this season (fourth-best in the conference and just seven more than Pittsburgh), Montreal’s offense has been stagnant to say the least – tied for the 11th worst in the league.

More after the jump…

– Pittsburgh will be without Tyler Kennedy in tonight’s lineup. Kennedy was returned to Pittsburgh after suffering lower-body injury in Sunday’s loss to the New Jersey Devils for proper evaluation. He will be replaced in the lineup tonight by former AHL all-star Colin McDonald. McDonald’s will be a player to watch tonight because of his AHL scoring stature. McDonald posted a whopping 42 goals with the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL last year. This will be his first appearance in a primary scoring role since joining the team in the 2011 offseason. He will skate on the team’s second line tonight with Steve Sullivan and recent acquisition Cal O’ Reilly. Frequent 2011-12 call-up Jason Williams was once again recalled from AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre Scranton this afternoon, as well. He will not be in tonight’s lineup.

– Special teams have been a battle of extremes when the Pens and Habs do battle. The Pittsburgh Penguins have yet to score a powerplay goal against Montreal this season, but the Pens’ PK unit has killed off thirteen out of a possible fourteen short-handed instances against the Habs this season. The Penguins are just 4 for 39 with the man-advantage in their last ten regular season games against Montreal – all four were scored in just one game against the Habs on January 12th of 2011. The Canadiens kill an excellent 89.7 per cent of opponents’ power plays – tops in the entire NHL. If the Penguins can get on the scoresheet with the man-advantage, it could go a long way towards a Pittsburgh win.

– The face-off dot has experienced much more parity than the special teams. The Penguins have won 101 out of a possible 196 draws against the Habs this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury will be between the pipes once again for the Pens tonight. Fleury has started all games but one since January 10th. He was pulled in Sunday’s loss to the- Pittsburgh has substantially outshot Montreal this season in their three previous battles – a 112-84 clip.

– The Penguins are a combined +17 against the Canadiens this season. Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik both top the plus-minus category against the Habs with a +4, whereas Zbynek Michalek rounds out the lowest plus-minus rating against the Canadiens with a minus-3. Montreal, however, is a combined minus-20 against the Penguins. The Canadiens’ Erik Cole will be tonight’s opposing player to watch – he is a plus-2 against Pittsburgh and has a combined four points in the three losses to Pittsburgh this season. Thankfully for Pittsburgh, frequent Penguin-killer Mike Cammalleri is no longer with the team.

– It’s been over a calendar year since Scott Gomez scored for the Habs. Penguins fans are hoping they won’t be the team that stops the streak.

– Pittsburgh’s lines / defensive pairings for tonight’s game are as follows :

Chris Kunitz – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Steve Sullivan – Cal O’Reilly – Colin McDonald
Matt Cooke – Dustin Jeffrey – Pascal Dupuis
Richard Park – Joe Vitale –  Craig Adams

Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang
Paul Martin – Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen – Deryk Engelland

– The puck drops at the Bell Centre in Montreal at 7:30pm EST