By: Jim Meinecke
The Penguins are at home once again this evening as they square off against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It is a game of two teams going in completely opposite directions. After being near the top of the Metropolitan in many off season predictions and an almost surefire playoff contender, the Blue Jackets stumbled to an 0-8-0 record out of the gate to start the season. It prompted a coaching change as the organization fired Todd Richards and brought in the polarizing presence of one John Tortorella. In the opposite end of the spectrum, the Penguins struggled initially and lost their first three games of the season, but they have since gone on to win 10 of their last 12 games and are one of the NHL’s hottest teams.
The Penguins are coming off arguably their best win of the season on Wednesday night against the league leader in points in the Montreal Canadiens. As has been the case for much of the season, the Penguins have not been very pretty to watch, but they keep finding ways to win. Almost a quarter of the way through the season, the statistics have not changed very much. The team is limiting goals like a Stanley Cup contender at fourth in the league with 2.1 gpg, and their penalty kill has been fantastic at 87.5% and third in the league. However, they are still struggling mightily to put up any offense as they rank 25th in goals per game and power play percentage. It is an odd spot for fans to be in because the product on the ice hasn’t been great with the explosive offense they are accustomed to seeing being pretty lackluster, but the team is winning. While the drop in scoring is probably here to stay and is indicative of a league-wide problem magnified with Mike Johnston’s system, the goals against per game statistic is an area that would be shocking to see continue. The Penguins’ defense was always the question mark entering the season, but the numbers say otherwise so far. The encouraging thing is that Marc-Andre Fleury is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Kris Letang hasn’t played anywhere near his best hockey yet. Johnston split up Kris Letang and Ian Cole at the end of the Montreal game, so expect to see Letang with Maatta for the foreseeable future. That leaves a quietly steady Brian Dumoulin with Ben Lovejoy, and Ian Cole with Rob Scuderi in the bottom pairing. The last contest also saw Beau Bennett getting moved to the first line, which paid immediate dividends with a goal from the top line 13 seconds into the game. If that line can continue to produce, it makes for an even more dangerous lineup. The third line consisting of Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, and Patric Hornqvist would be one of the most talented in hockey. It would certainly be a way for the Penguins to aid their scoring issues. Speaking of helping their scoring issues, the Blue Jackets rank 26th in the NHL on the penalty kill. There is no reason for the Penguins top unit to have problems producing tonight.
The Blue Jackets come into the game on a two game losing streak after losing to Anaheim and Vancouver over the past week. As I mentioned, they are a team that is struggling in pretty much every facet of the game. The rank 21st in goals per game with 2.4. They rank 29th in goals against per game with 3.7, and they struggle on the penalty kill, as I mentioned above. The only bright spot has been their powerplay, which is clicking at 20.7% and is tenth in the league. It is a unit that has scored in 10 of their 16 games this season, and it should be a good test for the Penguins penalty kill. Notable Penguins’ agitators over the years, Scott Hartnell and Brandon Dubinsky, are leading the way for the Blue Jackets in scoring this season. In fact, even with all of their struggles, they have a player in Boone Jenner who is tied with a slew of players for sixth in the NHL at 8 goals. The Blue Jackets top-six is still very potent and talented, and the Penguins should not take them lightly. Possibly the biggest disappointment for the team so far has been Sergei Bobrovsky. He is 4-9-0 on the season with a 3.65 GAA and .882 save percentage.
Marc-Andre Fleury should get the start tonight, with Jeff Zatkoff the likely starter in New Jersey. This is a game the Penguins should win. The Blue Jackets are in turmoil, and the Penguins need to take advantage of that. With that said, they are a team that is still capable of putting up some big offense, and they always play the Penguins tough. Expect the game to be a little edgier than normal with John Tortorella behind the bench being able to deploy the likes of Hartnell and Dubinsky. I still expect the Penguins to win this game, but don’t be surprised if it’s chippy and turns into more of a shootout offensively. It seems weird to say with the way both teams have struggled to score, but it is games like tonight where systems break down and skilled players end up having a lot of open ice to create some offense.
Thanks for reading! Puck drops at 7PM tonight.