The relatively good times continue to roll for the Pittsburgh Penguins, riding a seven-game winning streak and winners of fourteen of their last eighteen games. I say they’re relatively good times because, while they are playing well, their run is now starting to coincide with a rash of health issues. Kris Letang suffered a stroke a couple of weeks ago but recovered amazingly quickly. Jeff Petry and Jason Zucker are presently out and will be so for some weeks. Evgeni Malkin’s knee took the brunt of a Sidney Crosby slapshot in Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers; though it sounds like he’ll be okay, it is anxiety-inducing to know that there is not a lot of depth in the organization, certainly not to the caliber of Malkin or even Zucker. Let’s just stay as healthy as possible and not have to deal with it, okay?
Tonight’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes starts a string of games for Pittsburgh which will amount to a serious test: six of the next seven games are against teams currently in playoff position, with one team (the Detroit Red Wings) not far out of the race. Including tonight, there are two games against the Hurricanes alternating with one against each the New York Rangers and Islanders, then Detroit ten days from now, then one game each in a row against three division leaders: New Jersey on December 30, the Winter Classic against Boston on January 2, and out west against Vegas three days later. It is perhaps the toughest part of the schedule the Penguins will have faced thus far in the regular season, and considering two of those opponents are directly in their path for first in the Metropolitan Division, it figures to be a golden opportunity to shoot ahead of the pack.
An important factor in tonight’s game will be who plays in net for Carolina. Their #1 goalie on the depth chart, Frederik Andersen, has been out of action since November 6, but he returned to practice on December 9 and should be getting close to returning to action. In his absence the Hurricanes called up Pyotr Kochetkov, and he has done very well, going 8-1-4 with an 8.4 GSAA that is good for ninth in the League. Backup goaltender Antti Raanta has not been so good for Carolina so far, and he hasn’t started since giving up three goals and being pulled for Kochetkov in what ended up being a 6-4 win over the St. Louis Blues on December 1. With tonight being the second game of a back-to-back for Carolina (last night having played the fourth division leader, Dallas), how head coach Rod Brind’Amour decides to proceed with his goaltenders will be worth watching.