Penguins vs. Blackhawks: What To Watch for as Regular Season Nears

James ConleyContributor IIISeptember 30, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a shot on goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during a preseason game at Consol Energy Center on September 22, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Penguins defeated the Blackhawks 4-1.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins will skate against the Chicago Blackhawks in their second meeting of the preseason Friday night at the United Center. For those remaining few on the training camp bubble, Friday's game represents one of their last opportunities to put on a good show for the coaching staff.

The Penguins beat Chicago 4-1 last week in Pittsburgh, scoring four goals in the final frame. Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy combined for four goals and six points in the win.

What To Watch For

The power play was a terrible sore spot for the Penguins last year, but the unit has improved dramatically this preseason.

Prior to the Kings game Tuesday, the Penguins were converting on almost 50 percent of their man-advantage chances (stats for the LAK game haven't been made available).

With Malkin, Neal, Sullivan, Letang, Staal, Kennedy and Michalek skating tonight, the unit won't be without its firepower. Malkin has thus far powered the unit.

Kennedy, Neal, Malkin, Letang and Sullivan made up the first power-play unit in the morning skate, with Staal, Cooke, Letestu, Morrow and Martin manning the second unit.

If Chicago keys in on Malkin, watch for Neal, Sullivan and Kennedy to get some open looks.

Penguins Forwards

The Penguins' official site has the projected lineup cards posted. Pittsburgh's forward lines from the morning skate:

Sullivan - Malkin - Neal
Dupuis - Staal - Kennedy
Cooke - Letestu - Asham
MacIntyre - Vitale - Adams

The first two lines appear to be what Pens fans can expect when the regular season finally opens. Steve Sullivan will be skating in his first preseason game tonight, flanking Malkin.

James Neal could use a big game. Neal was a snipe-show early in training camp, but badly missed a number of shots in the Kings game, if radio estimations are to be trusted. Hopefully, the Pens can nab a few power-play chances and get Neal some looks from the slot.

The fourth line is the only forward line with real bubble competition to keep an eye on. Joe Vitale is fighting for one of the final forward spots, as is Steve MacIntyre. MacIntyre's role is all but secured as the enforcer. Vitale, however, is going up against Richard Park for the fourth-line center role.

If Vitale can keep his plus-minus in check and continue winning faceoffs on the penalty kill, the job should be his to lose.

Penguins Defense

Projected defensive pairings:

Morrow - Letang
Martin - Michalek
Engelland - Strait

As I and many others have called for, Joe Morrow seems worth the risk of the nine-game junior contract. His game thus far has been stellar, and he'll have another chance to wow the staff Friday in Chicago.

More likely, though, is that Brian Strait will capture the seventh defensive spot to begin the regular season (assuming that Brooks Orpik will be inactive due to recovery from hernia surgery). Strait scored a power-play marker and was otherwise impressive against Minnesota last Saturday. He'll need another good performance to keep his name above Alexandre Picard on the depth chart.

Deryk Engelland, too, could use another big performance. Engelland has been the most physical player on either team in the games in which he has skated, but Matt Niskanen appears to have picked up his game as well. Both will make the team, but at which spot on the depth chart remains to be seen.

Dan Bylsma announced that Brent Johnson will play all three periods against Chicago. Marc-Andre Fleury played the whole game against Los Angeles Tuesday and is the only other goaltender still in camp.

Chicago Lineup

Penguins Report also has the lineup cards for Chicago:

Daniel Carcillo
Andrew Brunette
Marcus Kruger
Jonathan Toews
Jamal Mayers
Bryan Bickell
Brandon Pirri
Brandon Saad
Michael Frolik
Marian Hossa
Rostislav Olesz
Patrick Kane

Duncan Keith
Niklas Hjalmarsson
Steve Montador
Sean O'Donnell
Brent Seabrook
Nick Leddy

Ray Emery
Alexander Salak

This may be the most complete lineup the Penguins have faced all preseason (as well as fielding the best roster of their own so far). Toews, Kane and Hossa will test the Penguins defense.

It will be especially interesting to see how Morrow holds against world-class offensive talent.

Defensemen Keith, Seabrook, Montador and Hjalmarsson, the projected top four in Chicago, will also test Pittsburgh's offense. Evgeni Malkin, thus far, has been slowed by no one. Chicago should provide a good test for the returning center tonight.

Patrick Kane was recently moved from winger to center. In just one preseason game at his new spot, Kane registered a goal and assist, with Andrew Brunette and Marian Hossa for wingers. The line will remain in place for at least Friday's game.

There have been whispers that Pittsburgh native and 2011 second-round pick Brandon Saad may crack the Blackhawks lineup due to injuries. Saad, who registered two shots and two PIM against the Penguins last week, will face his hometown team for the second time Friday night.


Sidney Crosby, Dustin Jeffrey, Chris Kunitz, Richard Park, Alexandre Picard, Ben Lovejoy, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik won't dress for tonight's game.  

Crosby is still wearing the white non-contact helmet during drills, but Dustin Jeffrey has been cleared for contact. It's a big step in his recovery, but carries no promises of whether Jeffrey will start the season on time. 


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