For four long months we've had to deal with the summer dragging on, seemingly endlessly. We clung to the draft (!) and free agency (....) rookie camps, charity games, practices and exhibition games, but now we can finally dig our teeth into some REAL HOCKEY! The Ducks start the 2014-15 season in Pittsburgh tonight and here are some things to look out for.
Keys to the Game:
Of course the first two things that have to be mentioned when previewing a Pittsburgh Penguins game are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Ducks almost caught a little break as it wasn't certain whether Malkin would be able to play tonight, coming off of an undisclosed injury, but according to new head coach Mike Johnston (via Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) Geno has a "99 percent chance" to play. So, let's just count him in.
The intriguing thing though is that, according to that same article, Johnston will at least start Malkin out on the right wing with Brandon Sutter and Pascal Dupuis ("F*** you Geno.") rather than his normal 2C spot. That's also interesting, considering the symbiotic relationship Dupuis has with Sid and our old buddy Chris Kunitz. The right wing of the top line will be filled with Patrick Horqvist, acquired over the summer from Nashville for James Neal who usually lined up with Malkin. That leaves Marcel Goc to center the third line. It will be interesting to see how long those combos stay together.
Also initially questionable for this game was young Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta, but he won't be kept out either by offseason shoulder surgery. Per dailyfaceoff.com He'll take up his spot on the second pairing with Paul Martin, while another new Penguin in Christian Ehrhoff will skate on the top pairing with Kris Letang.
Bruce Boudreau was a little more cryptic with his questionable players, as Eric Stephens pointed out. Obviously Dany Heatley and Kyle Palmieri won't be playing as had been hoped because they were put on IR to get to the final 23 man roster on Tuesday. Cam Fowler skated again yesterday, recovering from a lower body injury suffered in practice last Thursday, but no word yet on whether he will be ready to play tonight. That news combined with the fact that Bryan Allen did not skate in practice yesterday and is listed as day to day (lower body injury) will probably make most AC readers more optimistic about the defense going into the opener.
If neither Fowler nor Allen are able to go, I wouldn't be surprised to see parings of Ben Lovjoy with Mark Fistric, Hampus Lindholm with Francois Beauchemin and Sami Vatanen with Clayton Stoner. Pick numbers out of a hat to label those three pairings.
As for the strategery of the game, Johnston seems to be putting a lot of emphasis on zone entries both coming and going with the Penguins, according to the great Elliotte Friedman's 30 Thoughts article from yesterday (see thoughts 8-10). The Pens are looking to go with a lot of speed on the attacking entries, generated by forwards circling back in the neutral zone to allow easy short passes from the D-men or carrying it in as a five man group with a hard center lane drive to open up space.
On the defensive side of things for Pittsburgh look for high pressure on the puck in the neutral zone to force dump-ins and the opposite side defenseman to retrieve the puck. That's a carry over from Dan Bylsma's system in the past years that the quick skating defense of Pittsburgh have used to great effect. See more details on that defensive tactic from Justin Bourne's Unique Traits season preview post here.
The Ducks have a few speedier players than last year to help throw off Pittsburgh's gap control, but it might be a tough night for the top line to get their cycle game going if they aren't first to the puck after dump ins.
What Can We Learn From this Game:
It's the first game of the season, with a few new faces and young guys stepping into more responsibility and even new alternate captains in Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin, what's not to learn? But then again, it's only one game so whatever we do come away with from this game we have to take with a grain of salt.
Remember the drubbing last year in Colorado? Of course you do. At the end of that game nobody, NOBODY would have said the ducks would go on to get points from their first 22 home games. So for now, just enjoy that hockey is truly back and start forming those opinions in earnest.
After being run over for the fifth time (in the first period) Marc-Andre Fleury will ask what the A on Corey Perry's jersey really stands for.
Stay tuned here for updates throughout the day (lineup news, etc.) and start commenting. We'll have a quick stats pack shortly before puck drop for the in-game comments to flow.
Thank the sweet baby Jesus!
BB said @C_Fowler4 is cleared to go tonight.— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) October 9, 2014
John Gibson is first off the ice. Hometown boy appears to get the opening night start for Ducks.— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) October 9, 2014