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December 29, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Saturday’s game tough to move

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One thing I’ve been cautioned on this job is never say never. Whether it’s a trade involving Derrick Pouliot or this Saturday’s home game against Montreal, it’s important to remember that anything is possible.

Considering Pouliot is now on the Penguins’ No. 1 power play, we’ll address Saturday’s game instead.

Don’t expect the time to be moved given the fact the Steelers have a home playoff game against the Ravens at 8:15 p.m.

For one, both hockey teams play Friday, the Penguins at home against the Lightning, the Canadiens at New Jersey.

By NHL rules, the visiting team can agree to move the game at the home team’s request. But considering there are back-to-backs for both teams, there’s only two hours of play; the earliest the game could start is 5 p.m.

Also remember that Montreal is in Canada, and this game will be the centerpiece of Hockey Night in Canada. It would be like us moving Monday Night Football. It could happen, but it’s not likely. I don’t see Montreal agreeing to it, TV rights and priorities aside.

Oh, and Sidney Crosby is kind of popular in Canada, in case you’re curious.

Plus, what would shifting it to 5 p.m. really do? Yinz would be leaving, as the Steelers crowd was coming. Maybe it allows for fans to get from one to the other, but I think we’re going to be stuck with a crowded Downtown scene Saturday.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 20, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Panthers, 7 p.m.

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What is it about this time of year?

As I wrote for today’s paper, the Penguins, from Dec. 16-23 of last year, relied on a group of young defensemen.

They will again, hence the story. Even younger, too, given the news Saturday that they called up Derrick Pouliot, their 2012 first-round who will make his NHL debut tonight. Pouliot had 7-13–20 in 23 games with the WBS Penguins.

Christian Ehrhoff is out for at least three games. Paul Martin is out tonight and maybe the next two. Robert Bortuzzo skated on his own prior to the gameday Saturday and probably won’t play before Christmas.

The Penguins now have four defenseman who are 23 years old or younger in Brian Dumoulin (23), Simon Despres (23), Scott Harrington (21) and Pouliot (20).

Coach Mike Johnston knows Pouliot better than any of us, having coached him in Portland. Johnston approached Pouliot following the gameday skate to tell him to get some rest – he left after Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s game last night and arrived here in the middle of the night – and that he’d be playing with Rob Scuderi.

“It was a late night,” Pouliot said. “It was unexpected. It just happens. It’s very exciting. Very happy to be here.”

Pouliot spent time on the No. 2 power play this morning and figures to log quite a few minutes tonight. That was not the plan. The plan was to let him develop, but a blue line ravaged by injuries has changed the plan.

“With Derrick not participating in training camp, the idea was to leave him down there, let him play, let him experience playing a lot of minutes, playing on the power play,” Johnston said of Pouliot, who missed training camp after offseason shoulder surgery. “The same with Harrington, the same with Dumoulin.

“We were fortunate we were able to do that. Now we’re in a position where we have to call them up.”

More good news comes in the form of forward Chris Kunitz tonight. He will return, giving the Penguins an intact top power play unit for the first time since Nov. 28, the game where defenseman Kris Letang hurt his groin. They’re 2 for 29 in the 10 contests since.

“We need to bring it back to what it was at the beginning of the year,” Kunitz said of the power play. “Have a bunch of urgency with scoring goals at timely situations.”

It will also be interesting to see how Johnston configures his top six. Does he play Kunitz with captain Sidney Crosby and right wing Patrick Hornqvist? Does Brandon Sutter stay at center with Evgeni Malkin and Blake Comeau?

With Craig Adams out – his 319-game streak no more – the final roster decision likely comes down to Andrew Ebbett or Bobby Farnham. I think Bryan Rust has done enough to warrant a spot, and I’d maybe try him with Malkin to see what happens.

That could bump Sutter to the third line between Nick Spaling and Steve Downie – those three, remember, were excellent before Beau Bennett came back – and play Marcel Goc with Rust and Farnham.

We shall see.

In the meantime, be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 19, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame ramblings: 1-0 over Colorado

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The game plan was to generate second- and third-chance opportunities against Colorado goaltender Calvin Pickard, a rookie playing his 11th NHL game.

The Penguins followed the game plan perfectly and wound up with a season-high 48 shots on goal. Only one small problem: They couldn’t get one to go in; only No. 48 found its way through.

That was when defenseman Rob Scuderi took a shot from the left point, Evgeni Malkin tipped the puck, and Blake Comeau swatted home the rebound for his 11th goal of the season, his 10th at home, at 2:24 of overtime.

It’s been a rejuvenating season for Comeau, who was acquired in the offseason via free agency after two down years with Columbus.

“We had lots of chances, lots of pucks around the net,” Comeau said. “It just seemed like we couldn’t get any. It was definitely a nice feeling to get that one.”

Some numbers to pass along:

>>Scuderi has three assists over his past five games. Dead serious there.

>>Malkin’s assist extended his scoring streak to six games, his third of that length this season. He has points in 26 of the Penguins’ 31 games (84 percent).

>>Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is earning a shutout once every four times out – six shutouts in 24 starts. If he makes 60 starts this season, Fleury would have 15 shutouts. Obviously the pace is insane, but that’s how good he’s been playing.

I asked coach Mike Johnston what’s up with Fleury that he has six shutouts through 31 of his team’s games. The answer was kind of not good yet still kind of funny.

“I don’t really know other than that he’s a really good goaltender,” Johnston said.

>>Johnston talked more in depth about why he likes forward Bryan Rust so much, and I thought the answer was interesting. Think back to the one-timer from the slot off a feed from Andrew Ebbett Monday against Tampa Bay.

“I really like his stick,” Johnston said. “I think he has a very good stick. What I mean by that is when the puck is on his stick, he can make a play quickly. He can get a shot away quickly, as you saw him score the goal.”

Johnston admitted he was trying Rust with better players – he’s seen shifts with Malkin and Sidney Crosby the past two games – to gauge his offensive upside, which Johnston views to be considerably high.

“I’m trying to put him with some players who can make plays, to see where he can get to,” Johnston said. “Tonight in overtime, I put him out there, and I really thought he helped create that goal. He made the hit in the corner, kept the puck alive in the zone, made the change – Geno got on – then Geno and Comeau got the goal together.”

I wrote Fleury for Friday’s paper, but I just as easily could have written Comeau, the Offseason Acquisition of the Millennium. His 11 goals are as many as he had the previous three years combined.

He’s become a regular with Malkin, a role that I wouldn’t change when the Penguins start to get reinforcements back healthy or a trade is made.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot of confidence back this year to go make plays,” Comeau said. “Obviously there’s going to be mistakes made, but I don’t feel like if I make one mistake the opportunity is going to be taken away.”

Club practices at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Consol Energy Center. Be GRATEFUL to each other.

Mackey

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December 18, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Avalanche, 7 p.m.

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Few people know much of anything about Colorado Avalanche goaltender Calvin Pickard, who’s 10 games into his NHL career.

Penguins coach Mike Johnston is one of them.

Johnston coached against Pickard in the Western Hockey League from 2008-09 through 2011-12, the former as head coach of the Portland Winterhawks, the latter the backstop of the Seattle Thunderbirds.

They saw each other a lot, too. Sometimes 12 times a season, Johnston said following Thursday’s gameday skate at Consol Energy Center.

“He was a reason the team had a chance most nights,” Johnston said of Pickard. “They were in a rebuilding phase, and he was outstanding.”

Peppering the opposing goaltender with shots is always part of the Penguins’ plan, although they haven’t done it as much of late; they’ve reached 35 shots – Johnston’s admitted goal – twice in the past 14 contests.

Doing so for a third time in 15 would be wise tonight, Johnson said.

“He’s a very good goaltender,” Johnston said. “He’s a very good first shot goaltender. You have to move him side-to-side. Like any other goaltender, you’ve got to hunt down rebounds.”

Why Colorado has the third-fewest points in the Western Conference is a bit of a mystery to me, other than the fact that the Avalanche have lost 162 man-games to injury. (The Penguins, even with all the drama lately, have lost 83.)

Colorado’s top line, starting last Thursday, has been switched to Matt Duchene between Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. The second line is Gabe Landeskog between Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O’Reilly.

Those guys, as you will note, don’t stink.

“Their first two lines are really solid,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “They have a lot of skill and speed. Their goalie has been playing well. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”

News out of the skate: Fleury returned, and his test for mumps came back negative. He’ll start tonight. … Thomas Greiss, meanwhile, is being tested for mumps and is in isolation. … Captain Sidney Crosby returned and skated with the team for the first time since he missed last Friday’s home game against Calgary. He’s a game-time decision. … Mumps test results on defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Olli Maatta aren’t back yet. Ditto for results the second opinion the Penguins got on Maatta’s shoulder. Or at least they haven’t felt like sharing them. … Chris Kunitz skated today with teammates, but he still needs to take contact before returning. … Defenseman Scott Harrington will make his NHL debut and replace Brian Dumoulin in the lineup tonight.

TV/Radio: Root Sports/105.9 FM

About the Avalanche: They’ve been off since Saturday, when they suffered a 3-2 overtime loss at home to St. Louis. T.J. Oshie scored in overtime. … Defenseman Brad Stuart will appear in his 1,000th game. He will become the 293rd player in NHL history to reach that milestone and the 100th defenseman. … Pickard was recalled from Lake Erie of the AHL on Dec. 9 and has started the last three games and six of the past eight. … Duchene and defenseman Tyson Barrie lead with 20 points. … Colorado is 3-4 over its past seven road games. … Colorado is allowing 3.20 goals per game, the third-worst mark in the league.

The series: The Penguins have won five of the last six meetings with the Avalanche, including three of the last four games played here in Pittsburgh. During the past six meetings, Penguins have outscored Colorado, 20-10. … The road team won both meetings last season.

Next up: Penguins vs. Panthers, Saturday, 7 p.m.

Links:
The Trib’s Penguins page
The Penguins’ gameday page
The Avalanche’s gameday page
NHL.com’s preview and box score

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December 16, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Leftovers from Monday’s win

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The Penguins’ first period against the Lightning Monday was not their best.

Far from it, actually.

Yet they hung around, and a lot of credit goes to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. His save, the one where he used his left armpit to rob Alex Killorn, was simply fantastic. He stopped Killorn again early in the second on a breakaway, another key stop that he used his left leg pad for.

“We hung in there in the early stages, and we responded well,” forward Steve Downie said. “Flower showed up tonight and won the game for us.

“He made some incredible saves out there. He kept us in it early and gave us a chance to win.”

The Lightning outshot the Penguins, 12-5, in the first. It felt every bit that lopsided.

It took a beautiful shorthanded goal from center Brandon Sutter at 19:09 to snap the Penguins out of their funk; won a foot race to a loose puck and ripped a shot that ricocheted off of the knob of Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop’s stick.

It’s the Penguins’ second shortie in as many games, and it came from a guy who has been as important as any to the Penguins’ success despite a boatload of injuries.

The rub around the league is that Sutter is a third-line center. He’s not. He has proven this season that he’s every bit capable of a top-six role, and his does it with his usual, steady style.

Win faceoffs. Play defense. Use your wingers. Sutter also plays plenty on special teams.

“I thought early in camp you could see right away that he can play as a second line center,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. “He can play as a top line center. He’s a guy who coaches trust because he plays the right way all the time.”

Johnston also matched Sutter, Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist against Tampa Bay’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula. The final tally: Filppula contributed one assist.

“I thought the team responded well to it,” Johnston said. “Sutter responded well to it. He’s not afraid to play that shutdown role, but I’ll bet you tonight he had three really good scoring chances as well.”

The Penguins have played three games in four nights. They won two of them and lost a third in the shootout, some fine work despite a slew of injuries and a localization of the mumps scare.

Plenty to be proud of, Johnston said.

“We knew it was going to be a tough three in four nights,” Johnston said. “The guys need a day off (Tuesday). Then we’ll hopefully not have any more occurrences of the mumps, and we can get that quieted down and start to get some people back.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 15, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Lightning, 7 p.m.

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For much of the season, the Penguins have been the preeminent offensive team in the NHL.

That’s not the case anymore.

And the team directly above them in goals per game – Tampa Bay – visits Consol Energy Center on Monday night.

“They’re a puck-possession team,” coach Mike Johnston said. “They’re a team that can really attack with numbers. Obviously they have some dynamic players. “We’ve got to be careful of space tonight and how we handled pucks.”

The Lightning average 3.36 goals per game, while the Penguins are at 3.17.

They will probably be cognizant of center Steven Stamkos as well. Stamkos ranks third in the league with 17 goals, and his 34 points are the fifth-most. Right wing Ryan Callahan, Stamkos’ linemate, has 11 goals and 23 points.

“(Stamkos) has a great shot, one of the better ones in the game,” Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said. “You have to take away his time and space. It will take everyone to make sure we know where he is on the ice at all times.”

The Penguins have won nine straight against the Lightning, the longest winning streak in the history of the series. They’ve also won seven in a row against Tampa Bay here in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins’ power play hit a rough patch and needs to find some sort of momentum; Pittsburgh is 4 for 39 over its past 16 games with the man-advantage.

News out of the skate

General manager Jim Rutherford spoke and said they believe captain Sidney Crosby is no longer contagious. … Also, forward Beau Bennett could have mumps. He’s been tested, and the results are due back Tuesday. Separate story on that stuff here, which also includes the fact that Bennett was among the group to visit Children’s Hospital. … Chris Kunitz skated with fellow forward Pascal Dupuis and strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar this morning. Johnston said he was hopeful Kunitz could practice later in the week. … No defenseman Olli Maatta, of course, who’s getting an opinion on his surgically repaired right shoulder today. … Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo is out tonight and day-to-day with an upper-body injury. … Defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and not defenseman Scott Harrington, will play tonight against the Lightning.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 14, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Comeau thriving with Malkin

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Who said general manager Jim Rutherford didn’t get Evgeni Malkin a winger?

Blake Comeau has found a himself a nice niche playing with Malkin and scored his 10th goal of the season during Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena.

The goal total is the best for Comeau since a career-high 24 in 2010-11, and it has to be more than Rutherford expected when signing Comeau to a one-year, $700,000 contract on July 1.

“I feel like we’re reading off of each other really well as of late,” Comeau said. “Hopefully the more we play together, the more we can keep growing.”

OK, so Comeau probably isn’t the long-term fit here. I get there. Either there will be a Beau Bennett Experiment once he’s healthy, or Rutherford will trade for someone with a little more flash.

It is tough, however, to look past what Comeau has done with Malkin.

“I think Comeau is playing really well right now,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. “That’s a combination we’ve had together for awhile. It’s nice that they do have that chemistry that you’re starting to see out there on the ice.”

Comeau called Malkin “an easy guy to play with,” which I found surprising because I’m not sure the bulk of the wingers who have played with Malkin would say that. He’s obviously extremely talented, but he can also be unpredictable.

Comeau’s way of handling it?

“You just get him the puck and try to get out of the way,” Comeau said. “He’s got great vision.”
Comeau didn’t need Malkin on his second-period tally, where he picked up a loose puck above the left circle then beat Sergei Bobrovsky with a shot that went short side, over his right shoulder.

>>Another thing I thought was memorable about this one was how much it looked like last spring’s playoff series. Great atmosphere in the building. Plenty of action. Everything you would want.

“There was a lot of intensity,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “They came running around and trying to hit guys hard. They put us on our heels at the beginning of the game. We responded well in the second and especially in the third.”

“It was a fun game to be a part of, and it was a good job by us getting that extra point,” Comeau added. “They did a good job of coming out strong and playing physical right away. We knew they were going to do that. They’ve been playing some good hockey as of late. As have we. We want to match their physical play right off the start.”

Club’s off tomorrow, then at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday. May have something tomorrow, depending on potential Sidney Crosby news or something else I’m working on.

Be GRATETUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 13, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Brief update from Columbus

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Greetings, all, from Columbus, a place I always thought was an underrated city. Sort of wish the Penguins had a three-game road trip here, instead of just one game tonight.

In any case, big one tonight for the local hockey club. Also the second consecutive game without Sidney Crosby.

Columbus has won five straight and has seemingly steadied itself after a shaky and injury riddled start.

Couple transactions to pass along quick:

>>The Penguins this morning recalled forwards Bryan Rust and Bobby Farnham from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. They also sent Jayson Megna down. That, coupled with an upper-body injury to Zach Sill, means both of those guys will make their NHL debuts tonight.

Do the Penguins go with an All-John Hynes Line of Andrew Ebbett, Rust and Farnham? We shall see.

>>Also earlier today, the Penguins retroactively placed defenseman Olli Maatta on injured reserve.

Tonight against Columbus, the Penguins draw a Blue Jackets team that hasn’t fared so well at home, just 5-8-1. They Penguins, meanwhile, are the best road team in the Eastern Conference at 9-2-2.

The Blue Jackets actually have a fairly efficient power play, clicking at 23.3 percent for a No. 4 ranking the NHL, which is probably more than can say about the Penguins these days.

“I thought the power play was a little bit out of sync tonight just because of so many players being mixed up over the last couple weeks,” coach Mike Johnston said after Friday’s 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames.

Forward Nick Foligno has had a very good season for Columbus, with 13 goals and 26 points. Forward Scott Hartnell suffered a broken finger during Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win at Washington and will miss 1-2 weeks, the team announced Friday.

That brings the Blue Jackets’ man-games lost total to an absurd 186 through 28 games, by far the most in the NHL. If that rate would continue, it would equal out to roughly 545, exceeding the Penguins’ number of 529 from last season.

The Blue Jackets, who are riding a five-game winning streak, have not beaten the Penguins in a regular season game at Nationwide Arena since March 12, 2009.

That’s it for now. Sorry to be brief. Johnston talks at 5 p.m. Will have more updates then.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 13, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Final thoughts on Friday’s win

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Playing a team that’s also in the middle of a stretch of three games in four nights, the Penguins got off to a strong start during Friday’s 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames at Consol Energy Center.

It was key.

Forward Blake Comeau and defenseman Kris Letang scored within the first five minutes to stake the Penguins to a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish.

“I think it was really important considering they play three in four nights, considering their record when they score first,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said.

Calgary, by the way, is 11-2-2 when scoring first. The Penguins are now 15-3-3 – yes, they’ve scored first in 21 of 28 games, pretty impressive and the best in the league.

It’s actually the fourth time this season the Penguins have scored on their first shot of the game.

“Much like a lot of teams in the league, when you score first, you really have an advantage. It’s huge,” Johnston said. “Getting a little extra momentum, a little extra edge early in the game is always a big plus.”

Flames coach Bob Hartley agreed, although he had a different view of the start.

“We had a tough start,” Hartley said. “We knew against a team like the Penguins they’ll make you pay for it.”

They did.

And in the process won their eighth consecutive game over the Flames.

Forward Jayson Megna didn’t help the Penguins’ cause. He was whistled for four penalties and didn’t see the ice after the last one, early in the third period.

“I thought ‘Megs,’ on probably two of them he probably took a bad penalty,” Johnston said. “You just can’t do that in close, tight games like that.”

Recent acquired Rob Klinkhammer did help the outcome, scoring his first goal in a Penguins sweater and delivering a team-high five hits.

“I’m feeling a lot better,” Klinkhammer said. “It takes some time. One or two practices is good. It’s a step in the right direction. The more ice I get with these guys the better it’s going to feel.”

With three days off and a few healthy players back, Letang – one of those the Penguins got back – knew it was important to start strong.

Which he did with a nifty deflection.

“We had three days off, so we tried to get to our game as quick as we can,” Letang said. “Put the puck in deep. We had a good cycle. Obviously we capitalized with a few goals.”

The other returner, forward Patric Hornqvist, finished with nine shot attempts, four on goal. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 26 of 27 shots to improve his record against Calgary to 6-1.

His game included a poke check on Paul Byron and a little clearing-of-the-crease on Markus Granlund.

“I don’t know,” Fleury said when asked about the Granlund encounter. “Was a little bored. Needed more action. He was in the crease.”

Looks like forward Zach Sill will be out several weeks with an upper-body injury. Would expect the Penguins to call up a forward, or maybe two, Saturday for the game at Columbus.

Talk you from Nationwide Arena, the place with the Cannon.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 12, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Previewing tonight’s game vs. Calgary

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The Penguins welcome what will surely be a surly Flames tonight at 7 o’clock at Consol Energy Center.

Following Thursday’s 4-3 loss at Buffalo, Calgary (17-11-2) has dropped its past three games, putting a damper on what could be considered one of the NHL’s best turnarounds this season.

“I like the way they’ve played in the games that I’ve watched recently,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said following an optional gameday skate. “Certainly against Toronto and Buffalo they didn’t get the result, but they are a dangerous team with their work ethic and transition game.

“In the past, they’ve relied on their defensive play or goaltending. This year, I see them being a real dynamic team.”

Calgary wasn’t much of anything last year, honestly, and finished next-to-last in the Pacific Division with 77 points.

This year’s turnaround starts with the Flames’ defensemen, most notable Mark Giordano (8-22—30) and T.J. Brodie (6-16—22). Johnston was asked this morning about Giordano and Brodie and expanded his answer to include Calgary’s second defensive paring of Kris Russell (0-13—13) and Dennis Wideman (10-8—18).

“You look at the minutes they play, how active they are on the rush and how active they are in the offensive zone,” Johnston said. “They present anybody with a lot of problems.”

For the sake of comparison, the Penguins have 54 points from their defensemen this season. Those four, add ‘em up, have 83.

Which means the Penguins (18-6-3) will need to not only defend around their own net better, something they struggled with at New York on Monday, but their first passes must be crisp and accurate.

Otherwise … not good.

“You have to be aware, knowing that they’re going to jump into the play,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Hopefully we can spend enough time in their end, not allowing them to create offensive chances that way. I think for the most part just knowing where they are because they can jump into the play pretty quickly, and they’ve shown that all year.”

The Flames’ power play also poses a formidable challenge. Calgary scored with the man-advantage last night at Buffalo, giving it an NHL-best 20 games with a power-play goal. The Flames are also tied for the league lead in road power-play goals with 12.

Over the past seven games, the Flames are 6 for 21 (28.6%) on the power play.

“We need to keep doing what we’ve been doing on our (penalty kill),” center Brandon Sutter said. “We’ve been pretty strong. We haven’t given up much.”

The Penguins are 14 of 15 on the PK since allow two goals each – four total – in back-to-back games against Carolina.

As I wrote for today’s print edition, expect defenseman Kris Letang and forward Patric Hornqvist to play tonight. Both were full participants this morning, and there’s no logical reason they should be out. Same for Crosby, who was sick and missed practice yesterday.

One would have to think that Letang and Hornqvist would help a power play that has struggled of late, going just 1 for 14 over its past six games.

“I’m just going to try to do what I do on the power play – bring some shots, maybe calm things down when it’s kind of out of control,” said Letang, who had points in three straight games (1-4–5) before a groin injury kept him out of the past five. “Just bring whatever I bring usually, and hopefully it’s going to get our power play going again.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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