Da Challenge for Da Costa

PITTSBURGH – Pick your poison, Stephane Da Costa.

As eye-opening experiences go, the Ottawa Senators’ 22-year-old rookie centre is in for a dandy here Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’ll be matched up against either Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal, the young stars who make up the most impressive trio of centres in the NHL.

 “I’ve been here, or in the States, for five years, and of course, I’ve watched them on TV,” said the Paris, France, born Da Costa, who has a grand total of three goals and 25 NHL games under his belt. “Whoever I play against, I have to try and do my best against them. It’s all I can control.”

 It could represent another welcome to the NHL moment for Da Costa, who usually plays on a line with Daniel Alredsson and Nick Foligno.

 Da Costa is loaded with offensive gifts, but he’s often pushed off the puck and is out of position defensively in his own end. He’s also struggling in the faceoff circle, winning no draws in Sunday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks, where Jesse Winchester took his second line spot for much of the third period. Da Costa also won only one of 16 in a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 17. It’s no coicidence that he owns a team worst plus minus figure of minus 9.

 It’s not impossible to stop the Penguins. The St. Louis Blues, backed by the goaltending of some guy named Brian Elliott, held Crosby off the scoresheet in a 3-2 win on Wednesday. Still, the challenges for a young centre don’t come any tougher than against Pittsburgh.

Crosby is anxious to re-establish himself as hockey’s greatest player, making up for lost time after being sidelined 10 months due to concussion problems. All Crosby has done in his first 414 regular season games is score 217 goals and 359 assists, including his smashing two-goal, two-assist performance in his return to action Monday. He also owns a Hart Trophy as league MVP.

 Da Costa could also see a steady diet of Malkin, who also owns a Calder Trophy as top rookie and has six goals and 12 assists in 15 games this season. During his career, Malkin has scored 164 goals and 272 assists in 367 games.

 The other alternative is Staal, who has typically starred in a defensive capacity, playing third fiddle to Crosby and Malkin. This year, however, he’s also showcasing his scoring touch, with 10 goals and six assists. Staal has 105 goals and 109 assists in 389 NHL games.

All three have been to the Stanley Cup final twice, winning once.

 As the home team, the Penguins can choose the match-ups they want, meaning Da Costa figures to have his hands full, one way or another.

 It won’t be David versus Goliath. But it will be Stephane versus Sid. Or Stephane versus Geno. Or Stephane versus Jordan.

 The line of Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Colin Greening typically plays against one of the opponent’s top units, with the Da Costa line taking care of the other. In the case of a line struggling, the line of Zack Smith, Erik Condra and Kaspars Daugavins steps up.

Senators coach Paul MacLean concedes that the Penguins trio of star centres presents a potential problem, if Da Costa can’t keep pace.

 “In Vancouver, against the Sedins (Henrik and Daniel), he didn’t match up that well and we played (Zack) Smith against them,” he said. “So (in this case), Steph gets the third matchup, which is Staal. But we’ll see tomorrow night, with what happens with that.”

Smith isn’t exactly a wisened veteran, either, having played only 92 NHL games himself. Yet he’s slowly carving out his own reputation as a physical and effective checker and insists he’s not intimidated by the names on the Penguins roster. Rather, he’s anxious for the challenge.

 “They are some pretty high-profile players, but I think our line has done a pretty good job of matching up against some pretty good lines,” said Smith, who has three goals, seven assists and sports a team-leading plus four plus/minus rating. “We’ve kind of moulded our line into a shutdown line, while also contributing (offensively) a bit.”

Spezza also hopes to do his part in stopping Crosby and the Penguins. Considering that the Senators haven’t played since Sunday, he has faced questions about Crosby and the Penguins day after day after day this week, but he understands why that’s the case.

“It’s a big story, it’s the reality and he’s great for the game,” he said. “We’re not going to play him any differently or treat him any differently, but it’s a big thing for the league and a special comeback and he deserves a lot of respect for that.

“They’re probably the team we see as one of the best in the East, so you get up for those games. Or else, you get shellacked and it’s not a good night. And coming off the rest we’ve had, we’re excited to get back into a game. We all like practice, but games are a lot more fun.”

 NEIL SKATES: MacLean was encouraged to see Chris Neil back on the ice for a “20 to 30 minute” skate Thursday, but he’s not ready to put any time frame on when the rugged right winger might return to the lineup. Neil has missed the past five games with a high ankle sprain…Craig Anderson, who didn’t play against Vancouver because of stiffness in his neck, will start in goal tonight, charged with stopping the potential potent Penguins attack. The coach said there will be no other changes, meaning that defenceman David Rundblad will remain as a spectator. 

 

What do you think? Leave a comment