The Canucks will continue their eastward swing on Thursday, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Consol Energy Center. It will be the fourth leg of the Canucks seven-game road trip, which marks the more than half-way mark of completion. Thus far, the Canucks are 2-1 with victories over Columbus and Washington, while having surrendered their only loss to Detroit.
Can the Canucks keep up their success against the Leastern Conference, or will the supremely talented Penguins overwhelm them? Lets set the stage, on the other, other side of the jump.
Puck Drop: 4:00 PM PST
TV: Sportsnet 360
Radio: TSN 1040 AM
Nothing new for the Canucks, lineup wise anyways. Zack Kassian is still ailing from his injury. It will be interesting to see what happens when he does get healthy. I mean, really, who do you take out of this lineup at the moment? Linden Vey seems like the obvious answer, if not for his role in the Canucks power play. Eddie Lack gets the start in net.
Well, would you look at that top-six. If not for the two players centering those lines, I’d consider tomorrow night’s contest a gimme based entirely on Blake Comeau, Jayson Megna (Megnatron!) and Nick Spaling playing prominent roles in the Pens first and second-lines. DailyFaceoff may be suggesting that Robert Bortuzzo slots in beside Paul Martin on the first-pairing, but the Department of Player Safety might have other ideas. Bortuzzo will be serving the first game of a two-game suspension for his high-hit on Jaromir Jagr earlier this week. Nothing is confirmed, but it seems as though Marc-Andre Fleury will get the start in net.
Both the Canucks and Penguins are early beneficiaries of off-season changes to the office and coaching staff. They’re just the one point removed from each other in the standings and are sitting quite comfortably at the top of each conference. With Willie Desjardins in Vancouver came an added emphasis to four-line hockey, as demonstrated by his ability to spread the scoring – and ice time – rather evenly in the lineup. In Pittsburgh, Jim Rutherford acted quickly to acquire bottom-six talent worth playing. Combine this attention to detail with their grinding lines, with both coaches unabashed emphasis on controlled zone-entries and there are certainly parallels to be found in their respective off-seasons.
The new bench boss in Pittsburgh, Mike Johnston, places a heavy emphasis on analytics. He built his reputation as a “numbers guy” during his time with Portland Winterhawks, where he enjoyed tremendous success. Since joining the Penguins he’s turned them into a plus-possession team, posting a 51.05% Corsi.
Johnston’s attention to detail is most evident in the team’s neutral zone play. I’m setting the over/under on dump-and-chase plays by the Penguins at maybe five for the day. Seems liberal, really. Here’s Sean Gentille of Sporting News on Johnston:
The Penguins don’t rely on foot-speed as much as they do quickness with the puck. In my limited exposure to the Penguins this season, I’ve noticed their puck movement is eerily similar to the systems once employed by Alain Vigneault in Vancouver. Short, brisk passes push the pace. Each player has options aplenty, as mentioned by Gentille, and they take advantage of them with quick puck movement. Watching this years version of the Pens can really be a mesmerizing experience. Positioning will be key for Vancouver.
Hopefully injuries to key players like Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Beau Bennett and Pascal Dupuis limit the Pens ability to dictate the pace. Letang has proven a great distributor of the puck and a key driver in possession.
Lack will have to be on his best behavior for this contest. In limited ice-time, the lanky Swede has had a relatively unspectacular season – especially when put up against his performance from last season. Generally speaking, Lack has been forced to play the second half of back-to-backs. Schedule losses, if you will. This will be Lack’s first start of the season that doesn’t qualify as a schedule loss, and his performance will bear watching as the team in front of him should be in fine working order for once.
Special teams will also be pivotal. The Penguins are enjoying early success on their power play and are the league’s best team at 5v4. They aren’t generating shots at a spectacular rate, and the argument could be (and was) made that they are due for serious regression. That said, they do boast Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who I hear are pretty good, so maybe they can make it work. Maybe.
Whether the Canucks win or lose this contest, it should prove to be an enjoyable experience all the same. The Pens have quickly become the most entertaining team to watch, for my moneys worth, but I would certainly prefer the boys in blue come out on top, though.