Key Observations Heading Into Game 23 Between the Hurricanes and Penguins

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

The Pittsburgh Penguins want to forget about the first game of this home and home series with the Carolina Hurricanes that took place last night at CONSOL Energy Center. The Hurricanes (7-12-3) defeated the sloppy Penguins (15-5-2) 4-2 with a two-goal night from forward Jiri Tlusty, who will most likely be traded by the trade deadline since he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Hurricanes out-played and out-worked the Penguins. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said it best after the game last night: “There was no effort. They out-battled us. We need to turn the page. You want to forget about that horrible game that we had and you just want to start over again.”

Luckily for Letang and the Penguins, they will get the opportunity to hit the restart button and try to play a better game tonight in Carolina. Pittsburgh really struggled last night with the puck, particularly in the neutral zone. The Hurricanes’ great fore check forced the Penguins to turn the puck over quite a bit, which frustrated them all game long. Pittsburgh will obviously need to improve that aspect of their game tonight in order to defeat the Hurricanes, who are 3-6-1 in their last ten games. The lineups tonight will most likely be similar to last night, but there will be a couple changes. Since Marc-Andre Fleury started last night’s game, the Penguins may start Thomas Greiss in between the pipes tonight. Greiss still has not played in a home game for Pittsburgh. He lost his last game a week ago in the Penguins’ 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders. In addition, center Marcel Goc may not be able to play tonight after taking a puck to the foot last night. Goc did not return to the game after the incident, but Mike Johnston said it did not seem too concerning. The team recalled forward Andrew Ebbett from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this morning, which suggests he may play while Goc sits this one out. Ebbett, the WBS Penguins’ leading scorer (5 goals and 12 assists), started the year with the NHL squad, but never played in a game. Ebbett’s addition to the lineup may cause Johnston to do some line scrambling again as he gave Nick Spaling some shifts as a center last night after Goc left the game. We won’t get any idea about the lines until the game starts since both teams elected to not have a game-day skate today.

It is not known who will start in goal for the Hurricanes, but there is a possibility that Cam Ward will start again since the Hurricanes have struggled mightily with backup goaltender Anton Khudobin in net. In six games this season, Khudobin has recorded an 0-4-2 record with a 2.97 goals-against average. Bill Peters did say that he would like to use both goaltenders this weekend though. The Hurricanes dressed eleven forwards and seven defensemen last night with Zach Boychuk and Brad Malone sitting out. Boychuk, a former Penguin, has registered three goals and two assists in eighteen games this season with Carolina. Speaking of former Penguins, Carolina is certainly missing center Jordan Staal. He suffered a fractured fibula in his right leg in a preseason game and obviously has not played yet this season. After his surgery was performed on September 26th, the Hurricanes gave him a 3-4 months timetable. If Staal recovers in three months, he could be ready for the New Year’s Eve showdown against his former team at CONSOL Energy Center. The Hurricanes have gotten some decent production from Tlusty, Riley Nash and Eric Staal, but are not getting anything from winger Alexander Semin. He has notched zero goals and five assists in seventeen games this season. That’s awful for a player that has a $7 million cap hit for the next four seasons including this year.

Center Sidney Crosby had two assists last night, which gives him 33 points for the season. That leads the NHL. The Pittsburgh goals came from Letang and Patric Hornqvist. There has been a lot of discussion around Pittsburgh about the Penguins not getting many power play opportunities. I think it is just a coincidence. There were only five total penalties called last night and that includes Crosby’s misconduct penalty with 13 seconds left in the game. The Penguins will get their chances. Speaking of the power play, it has been a little while since Chris Kunitz had a big game. He has not scored a goal since November 4th in Minnesota. In eleven games since then, Kunitz has recorded five assists, including one in Pittsburgh’s past two games. Kunitz was recently moved from Crosby’s line to Evgeni Malkin‘s line. We will see if Johnston keeps that line together following Goc’s absence. The Penguins will look to improve their  impressive road record of 8-2-1 tonight (.773). That is the NHL’s best road points percentage. Tonight’s game at PNC Arena will provide the Penguins an opportunity to respond to last night’s game. It will also be the first time that GM Jim Rutherford travels to the visitor’s locker room in Carolina.