Key Observations Heading Into Game 68 Between the Penguins and Bruins

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

Two of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference will meet this afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center and it could not come at a better time. The Pittsburgh Penguins (39-18-10) and Boston Bruins (35-22-10) are both fighting for better playoff positions. The Bruins currently have 80 points, which puts them in eighth place in the East. Pittsburgh’s 88 points is only 3 points shy of the Eastern Conference leaders (New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning). While today’s game isn’t a must-win game, both teams could really use the 2 points. The Bruins come into town with a 4-game winning streak while both teams have gone 7-2-1- in their last 10 games. This game could be the best one of the season series this year. The two teams split the first two meetings, but both squads have scored a combined 5 goals in the two games.

The Penguins are coming off a shaky 6-4 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night in which they surrendered a 4-goal lead. Pittsburgh crushed Edmonton at the start of the game with 4 goals, but the Oilers then scored 4 unanswered of their own to tie the game later on. Luckily for the Penguins, Steve Downie and Patric Hornqvist scored late third period goals to seal the win for Pittsburgh. You often hear people say “Two points is two points.” While that is true, Mike Johnston did not seem too happy about his team’s performance despite them getting the victory. Johnston should not have been happy and neither should the players. Edmonton is one of the worst teams in the league and the Penguins seemed to take them lightly after they led 4-0. Pittsburgh cannot do that because every team has talented players. Those players can change the game quickly and that’s exactly what the Oilers’ players did. It was refreshing to see Johnston a bit irritated after the game. He expects more from his team, as he should.

Speaking of that Oilers game, young defenseman Derrick Pouliot had one of his worst games in the NHL.  Pouliot struggled defensively and was partially at fault for two of Edmonton’s goals. This is going to happen with a rookie defenseman though. He’s not going to be perfect every night. Ben Lovejoy, who was Pouliot’s partner, also did not play well in his homecoming game. Lovejoy was partially at fault for three goals, which cannot happen much longer if he wants a spot in this lineup. Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff could return to the lineup today after taking in a full contact practice yesterday at Southpointe. Ehrhoff has missed a lot more games than he originally thought after suffering concussion symptoms. An appearance by Ehrhoff would be big because Ehrhoff is the only player on the roster who is not healthy (with  the exceptions of Olli Maatta and Pascal Dupuis, who are out for the year). Ehrhoff’s return would also push a defenseman out of the lineup. The likely candidates would be Lovejoy, Pouliot, Rob Scuderi or Ian Cole. If I had to predict what Johnston will do, I would probably guess he will rotate guys in and out. Pouliot may sit as a result of his rough night on Thursday, which won’t be the end of the world. Johnston knows how to develop young players and I think he deserves some trust if he does end up benching Pouliot.

It was great to see Brandon Sutter score two goals against Edmonton because he had been struggling offensively of late. Many fans have been down on Sutter this season, but this is a guy who has scored some big goals and seems to be improving each game. Daniel Winnik deserves some credit too as he s quietly making that third line much better. The bottom-six just looks a million times better than it did last year. Having guys like Nick Spaling and Downie on the fourth line just proves how deep this team is. That sounds much better than Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will need to produce in the postseason for the team to go far, but those bottom two lines will be important too. Speaking of Crosby, he looked like the old Crosby we’ve come to know on Thursday night. His one-timer goal and two assists were all things of beauty. If he continues to play like that, he will win the Art Ross trophy.

The Bruins have a bit of a different look this season than in the past few seasons. When you think of the Boston Bruins, you typically think of veterans such as Zdeno Chara. While Chara is still a threat, he seems to be declining a bit. This Bruins team has more young players producing, which is a good thing for Boston’s future. One player to watch is 18-year-old David Pastrnak. The 2014 first-round pick has totaled 9 goals and 9 assists in 31 games so far in his rookie season. With David Krejci still out with a knee injury, Pastrnak has picked up the slack. He has notched 2 goals and 2 assists in his last 5 games. The Bruins added former Penguins forward Max Talbot at the trade deadline to improve their forward depth. Talbot has recorded 2 assists in his first 5 games as a Bruin. While Talbot and Pastrnak are two newer faces on Boston, Patrice Bergeron continues to play well consistently. He leads the team in assists (29) and points (48). None of the Bruins players will be winning the Art Ross, but they certainly have some secondary scoring. They currently have 8 players who have scored at least 10 goals this season (Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, Dougie Hamilton, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg and Torey Krug).

Facing a deep team in Boston and their goaltender Tuukka Rask should be a good test for this Penguins team. The Bruins bullied the Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, but that was a much different team. Some of the Pittsburgh players in that series have really matured since then and Jim Rutherford has really helped out in giving this team a new identity. Let’s hope this game doesn’t go like the Pittsburgh traffic will today. Just kidding. It definitely won’t be. This could be a playoff preview, which are always good games to have with the postseason quickly approaching.