In true Nick Bakay style (of ESPN and "Angry Beavers" fame), it's time to play the Tale of the Tape!
Offense: PIT - 2.85 goals/game (10); MTL - 3.08 G/G (4)
The Penguins have been fairly consistent this month when it comes to scoring, tallying at least once in nine February games. However, they also haven't fired home more than four since the memorable 6-5 shootout loss to Washington Jan. 21, the first home game after Crosby's injury. A week ago, head coach Michel Therrien hinted that the Pens needed to get some more offense from role players; since then, Jarkko Ruutu and Brooks Orpik have ended long goal-less droughts (Orpik's was since Oct. 2005!) and Colby Armstrong has added two to his season total.
Also, Ryan Malone came up huge Tuesday night with his 18th and 19th markers of the year; he just needs a few more to establish a new career high. Evgeni Malkin is the current NHL scoring leader and has bested his goal total from last season already (34 now, 33 in '06-;07).
Montreal's offense can be downright frightening, especially at home in the Molson Centre. The Habs, as you may know, put together a five-goal rally to force OT against the visiting Rangers Tuesday night, then rode the stick sorcery of captain Saku Koivu to the SO win. This team is all about speed at the forward position, with the goal of putting the opposition in permanent defense mode. The Canadiens can be streaky, scoring five in two straight after getting no more than two in the previous five. Another example of this is how they hung an eight-spot on the Bruins in late January, three days after getting shut out by the Pens. The big heroes for the Habs Tuesday night were Michael Ryder and Alexei Kovalev, as each collected two goals in the monumental victory. Along with Kovalev and Ryder, it seems like Montreal has stockpiled quite a bit of serious young talent up front: Andrei Kostitsyn, Thomas Plekanec, Mark Streit, Chris Higgins, Guillaume Latendresse. And never sleep on the pride of Finland, Koivu.
Defense: PIT - 2.63 goals against/game (9); MTL - 2.74 GA/G (17)
Since the installation of Ty Conklin as No. 1 starter, the Penguins have played a slightly more conservative game, sticking to the defensive system a little more rigorously in order to protect the unfamiliar netminder. Looking a bit closer, though, the quality of scoring chances in the past week to 10 days has increased. By my count, Conklin has been faced with four breakaways in the last four contests, and luckily for the Pens he has stopped all but one. Perhaps the D-men are tiring a bit after what surely has been an exhausting stretch for Pittsburgh since the new year. Perhaps once Sid gets back the team can produce a little more offensively and take some pressure off the blueliners and backcheckers.
The Habs poor defense in the first half of the Rangers game was understandably swept under the rug, but the team's ranking is more or less a true indicator of its defensive abilities. Outside the constant physical presence of the underappreciate Mike Comisarek, Montreal's defense corps is rather unimpressive. Andrei Markov parlayed his power play pyrotechnics into a starting position in the All-Star Game, but his first instinct, for better or worse, is to move forward. But, hey, this team is certainly scoring enough to make up for a few lapses on the back end. Rookie G Carey Price looked like a first year player after he got yanked Tuesday night, but Cristobal Huet saved the day (trust me, that rhymes) with a staunch effort in the second half of the game.
Special Teams: PIT - PP 20.9% (3)/PK 80.4% (23); MTL - PP 24.1% (1)/PK 81.0% (21)
The figures scream that this one could be a free-for-all for the man-advantage units. The Habs' power play has been consistently at the top of the league since the lockout, succeeding due to old-fashioned talent combined with a great plan of attack that I wrote about yesterday. Montreal head coach Guy Carbonneau recently said his team has a "shooting power play," even though fluid puck and player movement are the ingredients that make it uniquely effective.
Speaking of a "shooting power play," the Penguins have recently found success by simply putting more pucks on goal with the manpower advantage. Although the previous four games have revealed a slight reluctance to shoot, the unit still has had the type of success that Pens' observers were projecting at the beginning of the season. Interestingly, after the departure of Crosby from the lineup, the PP has leapt from around 10th to the top five.
This Season: The Penguins are 1-1-1 this year against the Habs, with the first two of the season series coming at Mellon Arena early on. Carey Price earned his first career win in net Oct. 10 in Pittsburgh as the visitors prevailed 3-2, then returned to the Steel City Oct. 27 and won 4-3 in a shootout. The Pens turned the tables Jan. 19 in French Canada with a 2-0 Dany Sabourin shutout with Malkin playing a step above the rest. Geno has one goal and four assists against the Habs this season to lead the Pens; Ryan Whitney has 2+1 from the blue line. Montreal's Markov has two goals plus a shootout winner in the series.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 5, Montreal 3. Malkin gets his 35th and Gonchar chalks up a couple more helpers on the power play. The Pens tie the Devils for the Atlantic lead and hope against hope for the Blue Jackets to beat Ottawa. If that wish comes true, Pittsburgh is tied for 1st in the Eastern Conference.