First off, who is this scoring machine named Niclas Wallin, and where did he come from?
Oh, that’s right. He’s been on the team for eight years, but he has only decided to dazzle us with his dormant offensive ability in the last few games.
Wallin is playing like his job is on the line – and who knows, it could be? With he and Frank Kaberle (who fractured his leg in the Los Angeles game, yowch) possibly on the trading block, Wallin, who normally saves his scoring touch for overtime in the playoffs, is now second on the team in point totals. He has two assists in each of the last two games, which may not seem like a lot, but check this out – the only other time he tallied two assists in one game was in his rookie season, in early 2001.
Since it’s early, there are no ruffled feathers yet, but Peter Laviolette is opting to go with backup Michael Leighton over Cam Ward for the second straight game. Ward has been shaky in his first four games, and has amassed a save percentage of .891 and a not-so-stellar 3.30 goals-against average. Laviolette has a habit of going with the hot goaltender, and this isn’t a slight at Ward, who the ‘Canes believe is their No.1 guy…but it should wake Mr. Conn Smyth up, at the very least. Who knows? Maybe they’ll play it like they did in ’05 and let Leighton play consistent hockey through the 70-odd games left in the regular season, then let Ward take over in the playoffs, where he is seemingly more comfortable. This is unlikely, but fun to think about.
Lastly: the game at hand. The ‘Canes finished the California swing of their road trip 1-0-1, but now they must face last years’ Stanley Cup runners-up. The Hurricanes won last year’s series against the Pens 2-1-1, but this is an entirely different squad. The Penguins traded away Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong (he of the nasty Trevor Letowski hit – good thing Trevor’s not around to collect damages) and lost Georges Laraque, Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone and Jarko Ruutu to free agency, and signed Hal Gill, Matt Cooke, Ruslan Fedotanko and Miroslav Satan and bruiser Eric Godard to fill in the gaps. Even though they lost those big names, the Penguins are off to a good start, going 4-2-1. Aside from Leighton, which is a certainty, it’s anybody’s guess who will play for the ‘Canes tonight or what the lines will look like. Tuomo Ruutu is still fighting injuries and will not play, and Kaberle is out for 2-4 weeks. Boychuk returned to his junior team, as expected. The ‘Canes have been shuffling their lines of late for more balanced scoring, but expect to see Laviolette dress seven defensemen tonight, as the ‘Canes haven’t called anyone up.
In addition, we get to see the first Staal brothers match-up of the young season tonight when Eric and Jordan face each other. Hopefully for the Pens, some good-natured competition will shake little brother out of his poor start to the season – Jordan has two assists and is minus-2. Here’s an article NHL.com ran today about the family ties that bind.