Islanders vs (Some of the) Penguins
Preview: The New York Islanders are returning home after a Florida road trip where the team experienced more sun than fun. It was a trip which saw two games, two losses, and a continued futility to achieve secondary scoring. Not the recipe for success this season drawn up by coach Jack Capuano and GM Garth Snow, and not what the team envisioned after jetting off to a 3 – 1 start.
The Pittsburgh Penguins head into Long Island for the first half of a home-and-home series against the Islanders playing some of the best hockey in the league. Despite missing all-world talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins just keep winning. James Neal is shouldering the offensive load, and Marc-Andre Fleury looks back to his 2009 Cup-caliber form.
This game carries with it quite a bit more anticipation than the Islanders' first games against other division rivals this season. Whether you were proud or disgusted, found it entertaining or classless, nary a hockey fan went through the end of last season without hearing about, watching, and forming an opinion on the now-infamous “Friday Night Fights” game between the Islanders and the Penguins. In a game which saw the Islanders triumph over the team who had the most fighting majors in the NHL last season by a score of 9-3, hundreds of penalty minutes were distributed, Trevor Gilles received a suspension for his vicious hit and then immature and classless taunt on Eric Tangradi, and Micheal Haley avenged Brent Johnson’s K.O of Rick DiPietro by fighting the goaltender himself.
Lost in translation amid the aftermath of the Islanders literal and physical beat-down of the media-darling Penguins team was the fact that the Penguins picked the majority of the fights in the game, and the Islanders players had a “coming-of-age” type moment which saw them refuse to back down from intimidation and stand up for each other in a physical game.
NHL legend and current Penguins owner, Mario Lemieux, took it upon himself to openly criticize and ridicule the Islanders for their “bullying and dirty” style of play. All this from an owner who continues to employ one, Matt Cooke, who is single-handedly responsible for ending Bruins’ forward Marc Savard’s career, as well as a number of other despicable acts for which he was suspended. (Author’s note to Penguins fans: This author was disgusted by the Islanders all-too-recent employment of Chris Simon from the moment they signed him, to the Ryan Hollweg incident, and after the Jaarko Ruttu incident. He continues to be disgusted that Trevor Gilles still has a job on this team and does not think he belongs in the NHL)
Though the first meeting of these two teams is on a Tuesday evening this season, the memory of a Friday night game last season is still fresh in each team’s minds. Will the Penguins seek retribution for the beat-down they suffered at the Coliseum last season? Will the Islanders look to make another statement this season against their division rivals? The fact is that whichever team is able to ignore what the media will attempt to make of this game and just play hockey will be the team that emerges victorious.
Now to the hockey:
Forwards: At this point in the season, the Islanders only have one line worth discussing in terms of offense because they are the only line who can put the biscuit in the basket. The trio of John Tavares, Matt Moulson, and P.A. Parenteau has picked up where it left off last season, as a headache for whichever opposing line and defensive unit has the misfortune of playing against them for 20-25 minutes a night. Until another Islanders forward proves he can score a goal (apologies Michael Grabner and Frans Neilsen, but your line hasn’t produced much either), this blogger does not feel they warrant any pre-game dissection.
The Penguins, despite missing arguably two top-five NHL players from their lineup, continue to produce offensively because of their ability to stick to their game plan. The Penguins play a very basic, very old school, dump and chase style of hockey, which emphasizes forcing the other team into turnovers. And with defensive minded, but offensively skilled players like Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, and Pascal Dupuis, the Penguins continue to score goals and win hockey games. Their forward unit has speed throughout the lineup, and the Islanders defensive unit had better come to play with their feet moving, or it will be a long game for the team in royal blue and orange.
Edge: John Tavares may be emerging as a premier talent in the NHL, but the rest of his team needs to wake up and support him. Penguins.
Defense: The Islanders are close to getting Milan Jurcina back in the lineup. Jurcina, not much more than a depth defenseman on his own merit, would provide a boost to the Islanders as ‘addition by subtraction’ and allowing the struggling, slow-starting (and just slow) Mike Mottau to observe the game from the press box. For all of you Islanders fans who believe in the “Jurcina-effect” from last season, the same may hold true this season merely because of who he will replace in the lineup.
Random musing: Mark Streit’s power play ‘slap-pass’ may be the most beautiful part of this young Islanders’ season so far. Simply terrific.
The Penguins may have caught more than just a beat-down from the Islanders last year on that fateful Friday, as the injury bug which has plagued the Isles the past few seasons now seems to be infecting the Penguins. Their defense took another hit on Saturday when Zybnek Michalek broke a finger, which will leave him sidelined for 4-6 weeks. This hit comes to a unit already down top flight shut down man Brooks Orpik. The cupboard is not completely bare however, as Kris Letang, off to another blazing start, and former Devils puck-mover Paul Martin will seek to shut down the top forwards of the Islanders.
Edge: Simply because of the injuries – to Pittsburgh on both sides of the rink – Islanders.
Goaltending: Marc Andre Fleury has won the Stanley Cup. Evgeni Nabokov has been the goaltender on the consistently under-achieving San Jose Sharks, Al Montoya is seeing his first taste of NHL action this season, and Rick DiPietro is, well, “healthy” for now. Coach Jack Capuano has played his cards close to the vest this season, and given the Islanders’ effort in the past two games, it would not be surprising to see any of these three getting the call to mind the net on Tuesday night.
Special Teams: The Islanders have been playing well on both sides of the ice in terms of special teams. Assistant Coach Doug Weight has drawn up a power play that seems to be clicking with the players thus far. On the penalty kill, the Islanders continue their usual steady play, though the shorthanded goals which seemed almost guaranteed at times last year have not yet manifested themselves.
The Penguins are without a lot of premier talent in their lineup, and yet, they boast the top record in the Atlantic division. This means one thing – they still have plenty of premier talent left to dress every night. The power play still has plenty of scoring power, and the long reach and defensive prowess of Jordan Staal make the Pens almost as dangerous down a man as the Islanders.
Coaching: Straight up, without Crosby and competing at the top of the Eastern Conference puts Dan Bylsma in the conversation for the Jack Adams award for coach of the year. Now add on time without Malkin, Orpik, Michalek, and Tyler Kennedy? If the Penguins keep winning, Bylsma will absolutely run away with the award.
Jack Capuano deserves a tip of the cap for what he has done with the young Islanders squad since becoming head coach as well, but he has a ways to go before being mentioned in circles with Bylsma. Consider this two game set a good test for Capuano and his squad. His first test: Switch up the lines and find some secondary scoring.
Overall Edge: Penguins
My Prediction: The Islanders simply are not playing like the confident team who put up 4 first period goals against the Lightning and then beat the rival Rangers just a few weeks ago. Despite another goal and assist by the only offense the team has, John Tavares, the Penguins will earn a bit of redemption for the beat-down they suffered last season. Final Score: Penguins – 3, Islanders – 2.
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