Friday, November 11th, 2011, 6:00 PM CST
Consol Energy Center
Opponent Blog: PensBurgh
The Stars' four game road trip reaches a crescendo tonight in Pittsburgh and tomorrow in Detroit as Dallas tries to push their way even further ahead of their Western Conference foes and bring back more than a .500 result before settling in for some welcome home games through Thanksgiving.
This one was supposed to be about Sidney Crosby's big return to the National Hockey League after eleven months away from the game, but the Penguins broke the news yesterday that it wasn't to be, as he's not yet been fully cleared medically to return. Thirsty hockey minds will have to settle for other story lines.
There's the Stars' surprising start to consider, and if they're for real. There's the fact that these two teams enter this one at the top of their respective conferences as well. If that's not enough there's former Stars Matt Niskanen and James Neal meeting their former mates for the first time while Alex Goligoski looks upon a similar situation from the other side, and there's all the pundits out there still trying to evaluate that trade, which in reality worked out well for both sides.
These teams met just once last year, in November, in Dallas. The Stars took a 5-2 win on that night and Matt Niskanen and Sidney Crosby matched pugilistic wits to boot. Jamie Benn was a thorn in the side of the Penguins all night, drawing their attention in more ways than one with the rare two fighting majors. There were 64 penalty minutes altogether in a game filled with agitation all around. For estranged teams in opposite conferences, it shouldn't carry over, but that was said about Stars/Bruins tilts as well and we know what happened there.
More on both teams after the jump...
Dallas has a .500 trip already locked up and is looking for more. There was some speculation that Kari Lehtonen would sit here and that Andrew Raycroft would come in, saving their number one for the wearier half of a back-to-back, not to mention an important Western Conference foe. Not so, as Kari Lehtonen has been named Gulutzan's starter.
He didn't elaborate (or at least not in a quote we were able to get our hands on) but the assumption is: Let's just keep this thing going as long as we can. With Pittsburgh coming off a five day rest it could be a rough first period to survive, so they'll look to Kari to weather the storm.
No word yet on whether or not Mark Fistric will make his third straight appearance on the Stars blue line. Adam Pardy sill surell be anxious to get back in the lineup, as will Krys Barch. Both will see action this weekend with the back to back.
Steve Ott will not make any part of this trip, but is expected to be ready for the Panthers on Tuesday. Brenden Morrow has some kind of elbow malady and missed practice Thursday, but is expected to tough it out on Friday night. If he is unable to go at any point this weekend the Stars will be without two of their top six forwards. Steve Ott was placed on IR yesterday to more easily facilitate a call-up should one be required.
4-0-2: That's the Pens very impressive record against the Western Conference this year and the trend the Stars are trying to break in their first ever visit to Consol Energy Center.
Pittsburgh has been without RW Tyler Kennedy since October 15th due to a concussion suffered against the Sabres. They expect to get him back soon. Reports on his status tonight range from out to game-time-decision, though the Penguins are 6-3 without him. They've dealt with significant injury issues dating back to last season and have kept rolling impressively regardless.
To supplement their small number of forwards available the team also recalled Eric Tangradi from it's AHL affiliate. The 22 year old forward has seven goals and five assists in twelve games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
It's still unclear how the Pens plan to use Tangradi, whether it's as a fourth line forward in a limited capacity or with an opportunity to contribute on the Pens top lines. Tangradi played in 15 NHL games last season, notching three points on one goal and two assists. He did see action in one postseason game against Tampa Bay last April. With Mark Letestu traded to Columbus, and both Kennedy and Sidney Crosby out, the 22 year old left winger prospect will likely be up for at least the duration of the weekend.
As usual on the road, this one will likely come down to special teams.
Consider that the Penguins have the best penalty kill in the league at a ridiculous (and I can't believe I'm even typing this six weeks into the season) 93.2%. That's your classic early season, small sample size aberration but it is quite a number to behold. In eleven of their first fifteen games they have not surrendered a power play goal. They're 14 of 15 at home. The Washington Capitals are the only team to have scored a PP goal in that building this season, and in that game the Penguins gave them exactly one chance to do it.
On the other side of the coin the Penguins are 21.3%, and that's sure to go up when they're truly and finally healthy. The Stars don't have to worry about that tonight, but they do have to work on their PK. The Stars have surrendered a pretty staggering 18 PP opportunities in their last three games, killing only 13 of them.