Phil Kessel and the Penguins host the Florida Panthers on Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It’s hard not to appreciate what Ian Cole and Phil Kessel have done this season, playing in 70 games, the only two to do so.
Ron Cook wrote about Kessel the other night and his ridiculous stretch. All Cole has done is set the franchise record for blocked shots in a single season — he now has 172 — while playing on a back end that has been decimated by injuries.
Figure, four times in the past 15 games the Penguins have finished a game with fewer than six defensemen, one of them (Feb. 16 against Winnipeg) with four. By my count, they’ve been a man down on defense at least eight times this season.
“They’re done a really good job as far as taking on a more significant role, more minutes, playing in more situations to try and help this group be successful,” coach Mike Sullivan said in his pregame availability ahead of Sunday’s 1 p.m. matinee against the Florida Panthers here at PPG Paints Arena.
“It’s never an easy thing when you lose the amount of guys we have. It’s great opportunities for others to step up. We believe the depth of our organization has always been a strength. It’s being challenged right now.”
Marc-Andre Fleury will get the nod in goal today, while Evgeni Malkin — as expected — won’t play because of a lingering shoulder injury he suffered while blocking a shot last Monday in Calgary.
Fleury, by the way, has been really, really good since the trade deadline passed. No surprise he gets the nod here. In four games, Fleury is 2-1-1. Here’s a closer look:
March 1 at Chicago, 25 of 28 saves, regulation loss
March 5 vs. Buffalo, 28 of 28 in relief, regulation win
March 10 at Edmonton, 40 of 42, shootout win
March 13 at Calgary, 27 of 30, shootout loss
The only game you could even remotely blame Fleury is Calgary, and even then the Penguins weren’t great defensively. He was excellent against the Blackhawks, the victim of far too many odd-man rushes. Best player against Buffalo and Edmonton, arguably.
“He’s played really well,” Sullivan said. “He’s had some strong games, making timely saves. Both of our guys have. These guys are giving us a chance to win. It’s certainly a strong point of our team when you look at how our team and the nature of the way the schedule has been built this year with the condensed schedule. More and more teams have been having to rely on two goalies. Certainly we feel like we’ve got a really strong tandem.”
Trocheck named alternate captain
Upper St. Clair native Vince Trocheck will wear an “A” on his sweater today for the Florida Panthers, a ripple effect after an injury to Aaron Ekblad.
Coach Tom Rowe said the decision was “automatic.”
“Because of what he did when [Aleksander] Barkov and [Jonathan] Huberdeau were out,” Rowe explained. “He played great defense. He was scoring goals. He was fighting guys. He was hitting guys. There was just no way I was going to give it to anyone else based on performance. He did everything we asked him to do.”
Rowe said he texted Trocheck to deliver the news. Trocheck’s reaction was relatively benign.
“He said, ‘OK, thank you.’ ” Rowe said. “That’s what I love about him. Every game he plays in, he thinks he’s the best player. That’s why he’s going to be a great player. He still has some things to learn, obviously. He’s a gamer, and I’d go to war with him any day of the week.”
Trocheck has 22 goals and 49 points. He’s on pace for one more goal than last season, which was his high-water mark in the NHL. But Rowe said, there’s much, much more to Trocheck’s game than goals.
“When he’s not scoring, he usually plays pretty good defense for us,” Rowe said. “He’s killing penalties for us. He’s competing. He’s finishing hits. He’s very, very fiery on the bench. When we’re not going good, he’s not afraid to get in someone’s face.”
*** Jaromir Jagr has the most points after age 40 in NHL history: 104-165—269.
*** Sidney Crosby has at least one point in 11 of his past 14 home games (7-15–22) and points in seven of his last eight (5-8–13) against Florida.
*** Jake Guentzel has points in seven of his last nine home games (4-4–8).
*** Conor Sheary is a plus-21. That’s tied for sixth among NHL forwards this season and the best among Penguins forwards.
*** Crosby is 122-104 (54 percent) on faceoffs in his past 10 games dating back to Feb. 28.
*** The Penguins are 5-1-2 this season without Malkin, 88-48-11 (.636) in 147 games all-time.
*** Chris Kunitz is two hits shy of reaching 200 for a third consecutive season. When he does, it will mark the third season since 2005-06 — when hits became an official stat — that the Penguins have two players with 200 or more; Patric Hornqvist entering Sunday’s game with 205.
Recent trends, records
*** The Penguins own an eight-game point streak (6-0-2) against the Panthers
*** They have a four-game winning streak against Florida and have won 11 of the last 12 meetings on home ice.
*** Penguins are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, and they’re 21-2-2 in their last 25 home games. They remain on pace to tie the club record for home wins in a season with 32.
*** A win today, and the Penguins will be a point away from their 11th 100-point season in franchise history. It will be the eighth during the Crosby/Malkin Era.
*** The Penguins have scored five or more goals in a game this season 18 times. They’re 18-0 in those games, with 10 of them coming at PPG Paints Arena.
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