The Bruins will face one of their biggest tests of the season as they take on Sidney Crosby and Penguins in Pittsburgh for a showdown of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference on Monday.
"I think it's exciting to be able to play a game like this against a team that's extremely good," Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters after his club's morning skate. "They've got Sidney back and they're a team that's earned a lot of respect around the league."
Crosby returned Nov. 21 after missing more than 10 months with a concussion, and has picked up right where he left off with 2-10-12 totals in his first seven games back. He hopes to add to those totals against the Bruins, but knows it won't be easy with how well Boston has been playing of late.
"Any time you get matchups like this, you use it as extra motivation," Crosby said. "It's a measuring stick for where you're at. We know they're playing really well, and we think we're playing pretty well right now too, so it will be good matchup."
The Penguins are 5-1-1 since he returned and 16-7-4 overall, but the Penguins know it will be tough to stop a Bruins squad that is 13-0-1 since the start of November and 16-7-1 overall.
"You get tested against good teams," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "You look at this game as a chance to see where you match up and how you can play against a Boston Bruins team that is arguably, well, they are playing the best hockey in the league right now."
Pittsburgh's depth will also be tested. Even with Crosby back, the Penguins have been ravaged by injuries, especially on defense. They are currently without five blueliners, with standout offensive defenseman Kris Letang placed on injured reserve Monday with a concussion suffered on Nov. 26 when hit in the head by Montreal's Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty was suspended three games for the head shot. Letang will be missing his fourth game with the injury on Monday.
Zbynek Michalek is also out with a concussion and Deryk Engelland is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. The Penguins have been without defensemen Ben Lovejoy (broken wrist) and Brian Strait (elbow) since early in the season.
Alexandre Picard was recalled on Monday to fill in on the blue line, which also includes a pair of youngsters in Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres with a combined six games of NHL experience.
Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to get the start in goal behind that makeshift defense. Up front, Dustin Jeffrey (knee) and enforcer Steve MacIntyre (upper body) are on injured reserve, while Richard Park is a game-time decision with a lower-body injury.
Other than Marc Savard, who is out for the season still dealing with post-concussion issues that began with Matt Cooke's brutal blindside cheap shot in Pittsburgh in March 2010, the Bruins are healthy. Gregory Campbell missed practice Sunday for a "maintenance day" but skated Monday morning and is fine to go in the game.
Jordan Caron and Steven Kampfer were recalled from Providence and rejoined the big club to give the Bruins some extra bodies if needed on the road trip, but will both remain healthy scratches on Monday.
Tim Thomas was the first goalie off the ice at the morning skate and is expected to get the start after Tuukka Rask played Saturday against the Leafs. Thomas is riding a career-high nine-game win streak and is 12-4-0 with a 1.93 GAA and .936 save percentage overall.
Dean Morton and Kevin Pollock will be the referees, with Derek Amell and Jean Morin working the lines.
Projected Bruins lines
Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Tyler Seguin
Benoit Pouliot-Chris Kelly-Rich Peverley
Daniel Paille-Gregory Campbell-Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara-Johnny Boychuk
Dennis Seidenberg-Joe Corvo
Andrew Ference-Adam McQuaid
Scratches: Jordan Caron, Steven Kampfer
Projected Penguins lines
Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis
Steve Sullivan-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal
Matt Cooke-Jordan Staal-Tyler Kennedy
Arron Asham-Joe Vitale-Craig Adams
Brooks Orpik-Matt Niskanen
Paul Martin-Alexandre Picard
Simon Despres-Robert Bortuzzo
Scratches: Deryk Engelland (lower body), Richard Park (lower body), Zbynek Michalek (concussion), Kris Letang (concussion)