By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)
Things haven’t started out great for the Pittsburgh Penguins (3-4), but there is plenty of time to improve. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh will face the red-hot Nashville Predators (6-1) tonight, who are undefeated at home thus far this season (4-0). The Penguins hope some line changes up front will spark them to earn their first road victory of the season. After playing in his first game since November on Thursday night, Pascal Dupuis is expected to skate on the first line alongside Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist tonight. Head Coach Mike Johnston has elected to try out Phil Kessel on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Plotnikov. To be honest, who can blame the coach? The offense isn’t getting it done and some line changes could wake some players up. Veteran forwards Chris Kunitz and David Perron were both demoted to the third line and fourth line, respectively. Again, I cannot blame Johnston for this at all. Kunitz and Perron haven’t looked good at all. They seem to be doing some good work in the corners, but they haven’t been able to generate any offense at all, which is concerning. It looks like Daniel Sprong will return to the lineup after missing the past two games, which is great to hear. Honestly, with the awful offense in the top-six lately, I would not hesitate to throw Sprong in the top-six several times tonight. What do you have to lose if none of the other options are working? It’s going to be very interesting to watch how these new lines work out. Hornqvist had some great chemistry with Crosby last year and Dupuis also has previous success on a line with Crosby. Several media members believed that Kessel may be a better fit with Malkin as his center and that may be the case. We’ll see how it turns out tonight.
The Penguins will have to face a familiar face in James Neal tonight at a very bad time. Neal is currently riding a four-game point streak and has quite a bit of confidence. In those four games, Neal has notched five goals and three assists, which puts him fifth in the NHL in goals. I doubt that Neal will score 40 goals in a season again, but he obviously still has that incredible shot release that is extremely dangerous. Neal is on the first line with Mike Fisher and Filip Forsberg, who had a breakout season last year. Their top-six forwards are a decent group but Fisher and Mike Ribeiro are the top two centers, which is a favorable matchup for Pittsburgh’s Crosby and Malkin down the middle of the ice. As many people know, Nashville has been like a defense factory ever since they came into the NHL. Their blue line is very talented with young stars like Roman Josi and Seth Jones to go along with captain Shea Weber and veteran Barret Jackman. The Predators’ defense has been outstanding this season on both ends of the ice. Four of the six defensemen for Nashville have scored a goal already this season while the Penguins have only received one goal each from Kris Letang and Olli Maatta.
In goal, it should be a good matchup. Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to be between the pipes once again for Pittsburgh while Pekka Rinne will start for Nashville in goal. Rinne is having a good season thus far with a 5-1 record, 1.82 goals-against average and .933 save-percentage. His five wins rank second among NHL goaltenders. Although tonight won’t be easy, a win tonight would be a big confidence booster for this Penguins team.