The Penguins dropped a pair of games last weekend to Philadelphia; they hope for happier returns in a pair of game this weekend against Tampa and St. Louis.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A week ago, the Penguins were entering a weekend home-and-home series of day games against rival Philadelphia. That didn’t go so well — two losses.
This weekend, the Penguins get to try again, under slightly different circumstances — two afternoon games on successive days, but this time both are at home and against different opponents.
Today it’s Tampa Bay, a team that got its star, Steven Stamkos, back earlier this month, has won five games in a row and has earned at least one point in seven consecutive games.
Sunday it’s St. Louis, the top team in the NHL and 8-1-1 in its past 10 games.
“I don’t think they’re redemption games for last weekend. You can’t get them back,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Friday of the losses to the Flyers. “But two good opponents.
“If you want to try to go back, let’s go back to the [previous] weekend and do that weekend over again.”
Two weeks ago, the Penguins swept Washington in a home-and-home series.
The Lightning and Blues, in terms of points, standings and recent records, are better than Philadelphia and Washington.
The Penguins, though they have a large lead atop the Metropolitan Division, are 5-4-1 in their past 10.
“We need these kinds of games,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said of Tampa Bay and St. Louis. “Recently, as we’ve seen, unless our level comes up, we’re not going to have much success. It’s a good challenge for us.’”
The Lightning has moved into second place in the Atlantic Division, buoyed by Stamkos’ return from a broken leg that kept him out almost four months. He also has ascended to the team captaincy, with Martin St. Louis traded earlier this month to the New York Rangers.
Stamkos has 5 goals, 7 points and 27 shots in the eight games since he returned.
“If he’s inside the blue line, he’s a threat,” Niskanen said. “He has certain areas of the ice that he likes to go to. On the power play, he’s really lethal. And they’ve got some pretty slick passers who can get him the puck.”
Stamkos is especially dangerous when set up for a one-timer in the left circle, particularly on the power play. Because of that, Bylsma and Penguins penalty-killer Brandon Sutter said there’s a similarity between Stamkos and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 46 goals.
“They stay in the same spot,” Sutter said. “It’s very similar in that sense, but I think each team sets it up a little bit differently with who’s handling the puck, but those are definitely the shooters on both teams.”
Bylsma has statistical proof.
“When you look at their goal chart, where they score their goals from, it’s almost a carbon copy for Ovechkin and Stamkos — where they shoot and where they score from — the power play, especially,” Bylsma said.
In the recent sweep of Washington, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, who was paired with rookie Olli Maatta, was instrumental in shutting down Ovechkin, who had no points and a plus-minus rating of minus-2.
“We’ll make sure we get that matchup out against [Stamkos],” Bylsma said.
The Blues don’t have a player equivalent to Stamkos, but are physical and one of the stingiest teams in the league. Opponents average 2.22 goals against St. Louis.
“They’re an inside-out team — they play a heavy defensive game, but they come at you on the forecheck, as well,” Bylsma said.
“It’s a little bit different type of test, and you feel like you know the Tampa team a little bit better. We play them more often. Then you get the best team in the league coming in for Game 2.”
The Penguins make no secret of the fact they want to finish first overall in the NHL to claim the Presidents’ Trophy. With 95 points, they are six behind the Blues and each team has played 69 games. The Penguins also had fallen four points behind first-place Boston in the Eastern Conference before the Bruins chased their 11th win in a row Friday night against Colorado.
“We still want to finish first,” Sutter said. “We still want to get back ahead of Boston, too. To do that, we’ve got to keep winning.
“We know the best teams right now are winning lots of games. We’ve got to try to do the same or win more. We’re playing the best team in the league this weekend, so that’s a good test for us.”
So, too, will be the challenge of adjusting to both visiting opponents.
“Stylistically, two very different teams this weekend, so it will be interesting to see how we handle both,” Niskanen said.
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