Key Observations Heading Into Game 10 Between the Penguins and Sabres


By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

After starting out the season 0-3, the Pittsburgh Penguins (5-4) now find themselves as one of the hottest teams in the NHL, winning five of their last six contests. Behind another great performance by Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 3-1 in their Metropolitan division opener last night. Pittsburgh got goals from Beau Bennett, Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino while Fleury made 33 saves in the victory. It was the second game in a row that Kessel scored the game-winning goal. He now is tied for the NHL lead in that category with two game winners. It was refreshing to see the Penguins come from behind in the third period to win a game against a big opponent like the Capitals, but they have to move forward.

Pittsburgh will host a familiar face’s team tonight in Dan Bylsma‘s new and improved Buffalo Sabres (3-6). Sure, their record may not seem that great, but this is a team that is rebuilding. The Sabres have 13 players under age 25 on their active roster, including two 19-year-olds. A lot was made about Buffalo’s big makeover over the offseason, including the acquisitions of Bylsma, Ryan O’Reilly, Cody Franson and David Legwand. While those were key moves, the real new guy in town to watch is rookie Jack Eichel, who was drafted second overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. The former Boston University standout will face Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the first time in his career tonight. In nine games this season, Eichel has recorded three goals. The Sabres’ second overall pick from 2014 is Sam Reinhart, the other 19-year-old on the roster. Reinhart has been playing on a line with Eichel lately and it has paid off. Reinhart has notched a goal and three assists in nine games this year. While the two youngsters have been doing a great job, veterans like O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson are leading the team in points, respectively. O’Reilly is off to a great start in his first season with Buffalo, recording three goals and five assists in nine games. This team will definitely miss talented forward Evander Kane, who is out 4-6 weeks with an MCL injury. The Penguins, however, won’t mind not seeing him on the ice tonight since he is nearly a point per game player against Pittsburgh. With Robin Lehner still on injured-reserve, Chad Johnson is expected to get the start in goal for the Sabres tonight. Johnson has a 3-5 record, .884 save-percentage and 3.04 goals-against average in eight appearances this season.

Speaking of goaltenders, we will finally see Jeff Zatkoff‘s first start in the NHL since the 2013-14 season when he was Fleury’s backup under Bylsma. Zatkoff played all of his games in the AHL last season and eventually lost the starting job in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton due to the emergence of young goaltender Matt Murray, who became one of the top goalies in the AHL. Fortunately for Zatkoff, he was already signed to an NHL deal this season and earned a roster spot with Thomas Greiss departing via free agency. Fleury has played in all nine games this season, so it will be good for him to get a night off. It’s time to see what Zatkoff can do in goal behind a defense unit that many people have questioned. Despite all of the questions, the Penguins have actually given up the least amount of goals in the Eastern Conference. A lot of the credit goes to Fleury though, so it will be interesting to see if any adjustments happen with Zatkoff in the net.

While the Penguins have won five of their last six, it doesn’t really feel that great, does it? Crosby has been pointless in every game except one and Pittsburgh is still not getting enough from Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz and David Perron. Luckily for the Penguins, Fleury has been able to steal some games while Malkin, Kessel and Beau Bennett have scored some key goals. Yes, that Bennett, who missed five games after sustaining an injury while celebrating a goal. It was great to see Bennett come back into the lineup last night and immediately score a goal. This team will be much more dangerous if Bennett can keep playing at a high level. Malkin made a great pass to set up Kessel’s game winner last night, which should give the duo some more confidence. If the Penguins can get Hornqvist and Perron going at the very least, this team will be hard to stop.

A big part of the reason why Pittsburgh’s goal scoring is way down is their awful power play. How is a unit that features, Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist and Kris Letang the worst in the NHL? That makes no sense at all. They’re currently clicking at a 6.5% rate, which is embarassing considering the amount of talent they have. The Penguins were given a long 5-on-3 power play last night against the Capitals and couldn’t get any good chances. They continue to look for fancy plays instead of getting the puck on net. On the two-man advantage, they missed the net at least three times, which was very frustrating. The power play woes go hand-in-hand with the team’s overall offense. If they can figure out the power play, their offensive issues may be solved.

Projected Lineups: