No matter what happens to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Boston, it probably won’t be worse than the outcome the last time they faced the Bruins.
These Eastern Conference contenders meet Saturday afternoon for the first time since Sidney Crosby’s most recent appearance in a game, with each club trying to bounce back from a shutout loss.
Crosby had given the Penguins (29-18-4) a major lift with 12 points in eight games following his long-awaited return, but he’s been out again since a 3-1 home loss to Boston on Dec. 5.
Even Crosby’s exact ailment is now shrouded in some mystery. Long assumed to be suffering from the aftereffects of a concussion, Crosby was diagnosed this week with a soft-tissue injury in his neck, which could produce similar symptoms but is more treatable.
“There’s a pretty big possibility that I could be causing some of the issues and I hope that’s the case,” Crosby said Tuesday. “I hope that it’ll improve and that’s hopefully the end of it.”
Evgeni Malkin has stepped up in a big way for Pittsburgh in the absence of his superstar teammate, totaling 10 goals and four assists during an eight-game winning streak to finish January.
That run was finally snapped Wednesday in a 1-0 loss at Toronto.
The Bruins (32-15-2) are probably more concerned after their 3-0 loss Thursday to Carolina. Boston has alternated wins and defeats in its last 10 games, and coach Claude Julien had harsh words for his team after it was blanked for the first time since Dec. 8.
“We are not that great of a team when we’re just going out there and going through the motions,” Julien said. “Right now we’re playing more like a team that should be at the bottom of the standings then at the top of the standings, and that’s the reality of it.”
Carolina is at the bottom of the East standings, but it managed to sweep the four-game season series against the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he planned to look at the tape of those games to see how the Hurricanes gave Boston problems.
“(The Bruins) have great structure, great depth,” Bylsma said. “They’re really sound both offensively and defensively. You see it every game they play.
“You also saw Carolina win four games against them playing with some speed and getting on them and forcing them with that speed. Carolina is not a real big team, but they did force them in a lot of ways.”
Assuming Marc-Andre Fleury is in net for Pittsburgh, he figures to force the Bruins to work hard to end their scoring drought. Fleury still has a personal eight-game win streak after getting Wednesday night off - the first time in 24 games he didn’t appear - and he’s allowed a combined four goals while winning his last three outings in Boston.
Julien may turn to Tim Thomas after Tuukka Rask suffered the defeat Thursday. Thomas made 45 saves in beating the Penguins in December, but the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is 5-4-0 with an unspectacular 2.89 goals-against average in his last nine starts.
The early start time may not help Boston, which is just 2-2-2 in matinees this season. The Penguins have won two of three.
Cal O’Reilly could make his debut for Pittsburgh after being claimed off waivers from Phoenix on Wednesday. Fellow center Jordan Staal (knee) remains out, while Boston is missing top-line forward Nathan Horton (concussion).