Coming off a sixth straight victory and a fresh new extension for coach Jared Bednar, the Colorado Avalanche are riding high into Ball Arena to face a Pittsburgh Penguins team that has struggled to maintain its chances at a wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Despite the continued excellence of Sidney Crosby and a resurgent season from Evgeni Malkin, the Pens desperately need to spoil Colorado’s streak to stay afloat. But the Avs need the win too if they want to keep pushing for the top spot in the Central Division. MacKinnon versus Crosby in the battle of the buddies could only mean more for their teams if it were happening in June.
They’ve been dominating struggling teams and quality teams alike with suffocating defense and opportunistic offense of late, and it’s showing in the standings as Colorado has surged to two points back of the Central-leading Dallas Stars with a game in hand. Injuries have reared their head yet again, as Artturi Lehkonen, Cale Makar, and Evan Rodrigues have all left the lineup during the current six-game win streak.
But while those players nurse their injuries, others are set to return from long-term absences — both Erik Johnson and Darren Helm practiced in full yesterday and are likely to play in this game.
The lineup hasn’t mattered too much of late, as guys like Denis Malgin and Alex Galchenyuk have stepped up to fill roles vacated by injuries effectively. Even Kurtis MacDermid has been good when pressed into action, as his lucky bouncer opened the scoring despite the team’s slow start against Chicago on Monday. The team is rolling, but can’t get out to another slow start if they want to beat a hungry Penguins team.
COLORADO AVALANCHE PROJECTED LINEUP
Denis Malgin — Nathan MacKinnon — Mikko Rantanen
Valeri Nichushkin — J.T. Compher — Alex Newhook
Andrew Cogliano — Lars Eller — Logan O’Connor
Matt Nieto — Darren Helm — Alex Galchenyuk
Devon Toews — Bowen Byram
Samuel Girard — Jack Johnson
Kurtis MacDermid — Brad Hunt
The heyday is long past, but it’s still surprising to see the Pittsburgh Penguins drop four straight while trying to keep pace in the race for the second Eastern wildcard spot. With Sid, Geno, Kris Letang, and capable goaltending this team seems like it should still be a playoff lock.
But they’re not getting any contributions down the lineup, the defense has been porous, and capable goaltending is no longer enough behind the big three since the rest of the roster is so weak. GM Ron Hextall seems to be on the hot seat after questionable shuffling at the deadline, and his prized import Mikael Granlund scoring just two points so far in yellow and black is only adding fuel to the fire.
In goal, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been exactly average, and that is not going to cut it. Jarry has been hurt and DeSmith is reportedly sick tonight, so whoever gets the net will be fighting his body as well as the puck.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS PROJECTED LINEUP
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Rickard Rakell
Danton Heinen - Ryan Poehling - Mikael Granlund
Drew O’Connor - Jeff Carter - Josh Archibald
P.O. Joseph - Kris Letang
Brian Dumoulin - Chad Ruhwedel
Mark Friedman - Taylor Fedun
Alexander Georgiev. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Also, Jarry is at the other end.