Crosby Watch Ends: Islanders in Pittsburgh
When the puck drops for Monday night’s matchup, the New York Islanders will officially become a part of the biggest milestone in Sidney Crosby’s comeback.
The Pittsburgh Penguins announced on Sunday evening that Crosby will be playing in his first game since suffering a concussion on January 5th, which was the second of that week for him. This comes after months of speculation and rumors ranging from being ready on opening night to contemplating retirement.
The Islanders have really fallen on hard times as of late, and it seems to have come to a head after their embarrassing home effort on Saturday night, where they dropped a 6-0 decision to the Boston Bruins. If that wasn’t bad enough, they are now faced with an even more daunting task: with Crosby’s return to a team that’s already proven to be the cream of the crop without him, the league announced that VERSUS, Hockey Night in Canada and TSN will carry this game. No pressure, everyone.
So far the Isles have played the Pens twice in a home-and-home at the end of October, dropping both ends of that series. The first game, played at Nassau Coliseum, was a rather easy 3-0 win for the Pens. The second game ended 3-2 after a shootout in which Evgeni Nabokov was pulled out for Rick DiPietro after feeling some slight discomfort. Ironically, Nabokov hadn’t looked the same since that night and would hurt his groin after stretching to make a save on Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens.
Rookie Anders Nilsson gets his first career start on Monday night after replacing DiPietro on Saturday. DiPietro made a few errors with the puck to lead to goals, and the weak effort has brought his SV% down to a pedestrian .890, killing a string of strong appearances from him. Given what the atmosphere will be like in Pittsburgh, the Nilsson has quite the test ahead of him..
Marc-Andre Fleury has had one of the best starts among goaltenders in the NHL this season. He’s got 10 wins in 14 games and is sporting a 2.04 GAA and a .924 SV% - and that’s after two consecutive games where he’s given up three goals each (against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche). Brent Johnson got the start in the Pens last game against the Florida Panthers, so you can bet “Flower” will play in this one given the fact that it’s now become a must win for the Pens with Crosby’s return.
Crosby will be on a line with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, who both have been off to nice starts this season. The media will be focused on those three all night, and the Islanders will have to be as well. With other weapons like Evgeni Malkin and James Neal it will be interesting to see how Jack Capuano decides to play the match-ups for this one. Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have generally played against the opponent’s best forwards.
Jay Pandolfo has been the Islanders’ best forward in their past two games, and it hasn’t even been because of his defense. Some key guys are still trying to find their game, so lately it’s been the lower lines that have had some guys stand out. He’s done just that with consistent play (honorable mention to Matt Martin). Pandolfo scored his 100th career goal on Thursday night against Montreal.
All David Ullstrom wanted to do was make his NHL debut in peace. Now, he’ll get his first crack at the NHL against a team that has moved themselves from the ‘contender’ to ‘favorite’ category as far as Stanley Cup odds are concerned with Crosby’s return. Ullstrom scored 12 goals in 17 games in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers this season after going 17-24-41 in 67 games during the 2010-11 season. With the call-up and Kyle Okposo’s return from the press box, two wingers will be sitting out. Capuano was none too pleased with the effort his team gave on Saturday night, so there are a number of candidates. The two most logical choices right now in my eyes are Brian Rolston and Blake Comeau.
Zbynek Michalek (finger), Ben Lovejoy (wrist) and Dustin Jeffrey (knee) all remain out for the Penguins, while Nabokov (groin) and Al Montoya (hamstring) are sidelined for the Islanders.
You can bet the Penguins will be very emotional in the return of their captain, coming off of a tough loss to the Panthers. Will the Islanders be able to match that intensity? What will Okposo and Ullstrom be able to bring to the table in a playoff-like atmosphere? The entire NHL will have their eyes on this one, and it would be a shame for the Isles to embarrass themselves again.