Key Observations Heading Into Game 42 Between the Wild and Penguins

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

Believe it or not, the second half of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ schedule begins tonight at home against the Minnesota Wild. The first half went pretty quickly and better than anyone could have imagined given the circumstances. Rookie head coach Mike Johnston’s team finds themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference with a 25-10-6 record despite losing several key players to injuries/illness throughout the first half. Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang have all played extremely well under Johnston this season in addition to many other players on the roster. The Penguins have never gotten too high or too low, which has been very encouraging.

For former Penguins assistant coach Mike Yeo’s team, this season hasn’t been great. The Wild (18-18-5) are currently in twelfth place in the Western Conference standings and have lost five straight games. They also have a 2-6-2 record in their last ten games. Much more is expected out of the team that broke the bank to sign free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in the summer of 2012. The team also signed Thomas Vanek this past offseason to try to make a deeper playoff push. So far, it hasn’t worked out for Minnesota, but it’s still early. Yeo was furious at one of the team’s recent practices, yelling at the team and slamming his stick. He hopes his team gets the message and responds tonight. While Parise and Vanek are very talented, the Wild have gotten some great offensive production from underrated players such as Jason Pominville, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter. Pominville leads Minnesota in points with 32 (9 goals and 23 assists) while Zucker leads the team with 15 goals. Suter will represent the Wild at the All-Star Game this year as the defenseman once again leads the league in average time on ice per game with 29:35, which is just a bit more than Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty.

The Penguins can only hope tonight’s game goes just like the first meeting between these two teams in Minnesota on November 4th. Pittsburgh defeated the Wild 4-1 that night despite being outshot by the Wild 34-22. Thomas Greiss was the main star of that game, making 33 saves in the victory. The Penguins got goals from Nick Spaling, Brandon Sutter, Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist. Rob Scuderi also added two assists in the game. Niederreiter scored the Wild’s only goal while goaltender Darcy Kuemper took the loss. Speaking of goaltenders, Fleury will look to reach another milestone tonight. “The Flower” has beat every single team in the NHL except one. That team would be the Wild. Fleury is 0-5 in his career against Minnesota, registering a 3.76 goals-against average in those games.

With Kuemper currently on injured-reserve, the Wild have been exploring the trade market for another goaltender. The team currently has Niklas Backstrom and John Curry on their active roster. Curry started his NHL career by signing a deal with Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent in 2007. Unless a move is made, it will likely be one of those two goaltenders facing the Penguins tonight.

According to a couple local news outlets, Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta may indeed be out for the season as a result of his shoulder again. The team has not confirmed this, but it would not be a surprise since Maatta has not been able to even take part in a team practice in quite some time. It has been an awful year for the youngster as he had a cancerous tumor, the mumps and now a possible shoulder surgery for the second straight year. Pittsburgh has been getting used to playing without Maatta, but this report could change what Jim Rutherford plans on doing at the trade deadline. He already acquired talented winger David Perron, but there have been some rumors linking Pittsburgh to more wingers. One piece that Rutherford could have moved would be defenseman Paul Martin, who will be a free agent after this season. It does not seem too likely that Martin will return so the Penguins could explore what they could get for the solid defenseman. However, with Maatta potentially out for the year, I’m not so sure that’s the best idea going forward. The Penguins might as well keep their good defense together and hope that everyone can step up their game. Top prospect Derrick Pouliot was sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton yesterday to make room for the recall of Taylor Chorney today. Pouliot has been a healthy scratch recently, which will not help him develop. So if that was going to be the case going forward, Pittsburgh did the right thing by sending him to the AHL to get some playing time. Speaking of young defensemen, how good has Simon Despres been of late? It has been so refreshing to see Despres get a chance to show what he can do at the NHL level. Dan Bylsma never really have him a fair chance the past few years. In the Penguins’ last ten games, Despres leads the team’s defensemen in assists with 6. That’s impressive given the fact that this team employs players like Letang, Pouliot and Christian Ehrhoff. It has been a ton of fun to see Despres mature into an everyday NHL defenseman. The Penguins are a better team with him playing like this and if Maatta is indeed out for the season, Johnston will need Despres to continue to play at a high level.