After a road trip that contained unequal moments of both good and bad, the Panthers play their home opener tonight, hosting the perennial playoff Penguins. Jim Rixner over at Pensburgh traded off four questions with me.
Kevin (LBC): Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed three goals in Pittsburgh's first three games, leading the NHL with a 1.00 GAA and ranking in the top five with a .963 save percentage. After seven years of stopping between 90.6% and 92.1% of shots faced, has MAF turned the corner and joined the NHL's elite goaltenders? Bonus question: with T-Vo out indefinitely, what is the Pens contingency plan?
Jim (PB): Starting with last question first, Jeff Zatkoff is going to get a chance to be the backup, which leads to the natural question "who the heck is Jeff Zatkoff?" He was LA Kings property and got buried behind Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, so he toiled in the minors for a few years and bounced over to Pittsburgh and played in the AHL last year. Zatkoff is 26 years old now, has good size and seemingly ability and really just has never had a chance to prove whether or not he's an NHL caliber player. Now with Vokoun's injury, he's going to get that chance.
As far as Fleury goes, who knows. I'm done trying to figure him out. He's been a very good regular season goalie, racking up wins and a slightly abover average save % over the years, but obviously has been just horrible in the playoffs. I'm not sure what will happen this year and wouldn't be surprised at anything. The organization has changed goaltender coaches, added Jacques Martin as an assistant for more defensive posturing, and Fleury did see a sports pyschologist over the summer. They've tried to change some things up, big and small, to help address some mental and focus issues. I'm not ready to say Fleury has turned a corner, but to his credit he's played well in the beginning of the season.
Unfortunately for Fleury, no matter how good he plays now, he can't really answer the questions that everyone has about him until he responds (or crumbles) during pressure of a playoff series. That ultimately determines if he's for real or if the Pens need to make a change.
Kevin:Kris Letang, out indefinitely with the nefarious "lower body injury," is arguably Pittsburgh's most capable defender. Who's picking up the slack and when do you expect him back on the active roster?
Jim: Letang is believed to have hurt his knee when he went down during a practice on September 27th. He skated before the team on Tuesday October 8th and is eligible to return from IR now as soon as he's healthy. It seems like the injury isn't that major, and I'd definitely expect him back sooner than later, though it doesn't look imminent at this point. The Paul Martin - Brooks Orpik "shutdown" pairing has picked up the slack, Orpik had a rough season last year but has rebounded nicely in the early season. Free agent signing and Pens returnee Rob Scuderi has also brought the steady, reliable play that we've come to expect.
19 year old 2012 first round pick Olli Maatta has gotten to start his NHL career due to the Letang injury (though he'll still probably be returned to juniors after his 9th NHL game to perserve a year of his contract) and he's looked like a legit player. He's adjusted very nicely to the speed of the NHL game and was named the 2nd star of the game in Tuesday's win against Carolina, racking up two assists.
Kevin: When healthy, Sidney Crosby is an infinite contender for the Hart Memorial Trophy (as is Evgeni Malkin) as the NHL's Most Valuable Player. How likely are we to see a Penguin win it again this year?
Jim: If you could promise me that Crosby could play at least 70 games this year, I would bet that he wins it. He's off to a decent start (by his standards) with 2 goals and 2 assists in three games, but even better is the way he's playing. Crosby is going to the front of the net, he's battling hard in corners- things he understandably didn't do much of last spring after breaking his jaw. Crosby's flying out there and making things happen and all his injuries seem like they're fully in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, of course, it seems like he's only one shift or game away from something new popping up, but that's the risk that any hockey player takes in the NHL.
Kevin: Things are looking pretty good for the Pens this season. How can the Panthers win this game tonight?
Jim: It sounds obvious, but I would a huge key to the game is whoever can score first. The Pens have taken early leads in all three of their games, and have been able to skate away with fairly easy wins and never seem too challenged (although Carolina did tie the game 2-2 in the 3rd period). We haven't yet seen the Penguins have to play from behind, and their PK has been perfect in this young season as well, so they haven't been easy to score on there either. Scoring early and throwing the Pens confidence out of rhythm and forcing the Pens to have to scramble to keep up is Florida's best chance to come out of the game with a W.
Thanks to Jim for the insight, and be sure to check out all of the action regarding tonight's game from the opposition's perspective at Pensburgh. As well, the LBC Preview and GameThread go live at 3 and 7 p.m. respectively, so do join us as the home schedule gets underway.
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