Key Observations Heading Into Game 60 Between the Penguins and Panthers

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

Tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers will be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 60th game of the season. After going through a rough patch of games recently, the Penguins picked up a nice victory last night in St. Louis against a good team in the Blues. Blake Comeau scored two goals in the win while Patric Hornqvist and Brandon Sutter added a goal of their own, respectively. Pittsburgh also got a good performance from goaltender Thomas Greiss, who had struggled of late. Hornqvist scored on the power play, which was refreshing to see. Before the game, the Penguins had no power play goals in the entire month of February.

When the schedule first came out, not many people probably circled tonight’s date against the Panthers, but it turns out that this is an important game for both squads. The Panthers (26-20-12) are surprising some hockey folks this season as they are only one point out of a playoff spot. With a win today, the Panthers would move ahead of the Boston Bruins for the eighth playoff spot in the East while Pittsburgh would remain in the seventh slot. The Penguins trail the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals by only a point in the crowded race for the Metropolitan Division. With a win today, they could move up to second place in the Metro.

So how have the Florida Panthers gotten to this point this season anyway? Not many people expected this team to do this well, but it’s not a huge shock to me. This team definitely has a lot of good young talent mixed in with some experienced players. They don’t have anyone close to the lead in the NHL scoring race, but they have plenty of quality players. Forward Nick Bjugstad currently leads the Panthers in goals (21) and points (36). However, according to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Bjugstad is ailing and is questionable for tonight’s game. Their roster also includes Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and 2014 draft pick Aaron Ekblad. All four of these players mentioned were high draft picks for Florida and they seem to be maturing pretty quickly. Despite being a rookie this season, Ekblad has recorded 9 goals and 32 points in 58 games this season, making him a sure finalist for the Calder trophy. Up front, the Panthers also have an old friend in Jussi Jokinen, who left the Penguins in the offseason via free agency. Jokinen currently leads the team in assists with 25, but only has scored 5 goals after scoring 21 last season. Local product Vincent Trocheck was recalled by the Panthers today while Shane O’Brien was sent back to San Antonio. In addition, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov will return for the Panthers today after serving a four-game suspension for his hit on Dallas’ Tyler Seguin.

On the back end in addition to Ekblad and Kulikov, Florida has veteran Brian Campbell, who has enjoyed some success in the “Sunshine State.” Many people would expect to see veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo in goal for the Panthers tonight, but backup Al Montoya will actually face Marc-Andre Fleury today. Montoya is 4-5-2 this season with a 2.82 goals-against average, but has only allowed 4 total goals in his last 2 starts. No matter where Montoya plays, it always seems like the Penguins face him a couple times every season.

Could tonight’s game mark the first time the Penguins have been fully healthy (with the exception of Pascal Dupuis and Olli Maatta) in a long time? It looks like a possibility since defenseman Christian Ehrhoff is no longer listed on the Penguins’ injured-reserve list. Ehrhoff had been listed as day-to-day for a little while now after following the concussion protocol. He had been starting to take contact in recent practices for Pittsburgh so he could return to the lineup tonight, which gives Mike Johnston a decision to make on defense. Should he keep Derrick Pouliot in the lineup or sit him for Robert Bortuzzo? I’m not a coach, but I think Pouliot is the best guy for the job by a long shot, especially against a young Panthers team. Pouliot could learn a lot by playing with a guy like Ehrhoff and the potential for that pairing is off the charts. There is no reason to break up the other defensive pairs of Paul MartinKris Letang and Rob ScuderiSimon Despres. Those pairings have been solid all season long so those should not change, in my opinion. Bortuzzo has struggled at times this season and his skating isn’t a good match up against Florida. We’ll see what Johnston decides tonight if Ehrhoff can play.

Tonight’s game at CONSOL Energy Center will be the third and final meeting between these two teams. Each team has a win in the season series so far while Pittsburgh has out-scored Florida 6-4 in those games. Since tonight’s game is important for both teams, this should be a fun one to watch. Watching Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang taking on young guns such as Huberdeau, Barkov and Ekblad should be great hockey.