Islanders Gameday: No time for pats on the back in Pittsburgh

With the Islanders being such rude holiday hosts yesterday -- running their Devils guests out of the building without so much as an OT point as a party favor -- Heloise recommends they make up for that faux pas by doing the same to the Penguins, ensuring that New Jersey lost no ground in the Atlantic title race.

I trust I speak for everyone when I say the Islanders can and should make amends. It's only proper.

Stick-square_medium               Pit-glove_medium
New York Islanders (22-19-8, 8th/E) at Pittsburgh Penguins (30-19-1, 4th/E)
7 30 p.m. EST | [spherical fruit] Arena | MSG+, radio
Discovering that dynasty-building is hard: Pensburgh

 

Last time these teams played may have been a glimpse of what we're seeing now: The Pens visited on Nov. 27, when the Islanders played them well all game, got their first third-period comeback win of the season -- and actually continued pressing play to the end of the game to close out the win. (They followed that up with a rough first half of December, so perhaps now this young team has learned how to replicate strong performances.)

Here's an odd bit: The Islanders tonight face a powerplay that is less proficient -- notice I didn't say less intimidating -- than they're own. It's been a problem all season for the Penguins, but somehow they're powerplay with all that talent isn't clicking: 14.6% vs. the Isles' own modest 16.1%. The Pens are 4 for their last 37, though on their just-concluded five-game (3-2) road trip, they converted 3 of 19 opportunities.

Let's Do OT, Shall We?  >>No, Let's Not

Of course, PP problems haven't kept the Penguins from compiling 61 points, good for seventh in the league. When you only have 19 regulation losses -- wait ... that's how many the Isles have -- you're going to rack up points? The Penguins are 9-1 in OT/shootouts (6-0 in shootouts alone). The Islanders remain 10-8 overall in extra sessions (5-5 in shootouts).

If you want to get cute about it, you could say that the largely luck-fueled OT record is what separates these teams. But I'm not cute. And I respect the hockey gods, who frown upon parlaying a four-game win streak into comparing yourself to the defending Stanley Cup champions.

You've likely heard Marc-Andre Fleury is out with a broken ring finger, and a series of unfortunate events put a junior goalie on a one-day tryout deal in the net for mop-up duty the other night in Vancouver. No such issues tonight: Brent Johnson is back and ready to play. (His injury was of the groin-ish nature though, so move him side to side and see how he does.) Johnson, incidentally, is 2-0 in shootouts, having stopped all six shots faced.

'That's a Peach, Hon...I'm Hot Today!'

Seems we just celebrated this yesterday, but the Islanders are 9-1-2 in their last 12. Another scalp from an elite team would put an exclamation point on this run before the Isles host Florida Thursday. Barring injury, the Islanders are going to have two, maybe three 20-goal scorers this year, and I do hope the unsung Matt Moulson is the first. With two goals yesterday, he's closest.

During that 12-game stretch, they've outscored the opposition 34-25 (artificial shootout "goals" excluded). Considering this run includes two blowout wins of 6-0 and 4-0, it's not like nine goals is a huge aggregate margin. Most of these games -- win or lose -- have been close.

Ah, but the last three against Detroit, Buffalo and New Jersey have been displays of Islanders domination (the Sabres were spared regulation defeat by Ryan Miller standing on his head for two periods). Total shots in those three games were 115-69 for the Isles. Just a small sample -- or is it possible the good feelings built through the 6-1-2 part of this streak has fed a team that comes out ready to play and brimming with confidence? (Alternatively: The last three games have seen the three least effective players in the lineup replaced by better ones.)

Time to Play 'Let's All Jump on Last Year's Star'

Perhaps you've heard, Evgeni Malkin has had a tough year by his standards (43 points in 42 games), and some are starting to jump on him for it.

They'll be lucky to win a playoff round with this version of Malkin.

How fortunate for Malkin, the Penguins' most talented player, that he is not their most scrutinized, even though he and captain Sidney Crosby each count $8.7 million against the salary cap.

Which is fine, but the Russian is still young and still adjusting to all the pressures that come with being a superstar. Unlike Sidney Crosby, he has not essentially been trained for this role (and its related media and fame baggage) since he was a child.

Malkin's big year and playoff last season really changed expectations: I was asked during a pre-season Atlantic Division roundtable which player from within the division I'd like to have on my own team, and I chose Crosby -- thinking it a no-brainer. To my surprise, that answer surprised the others on the roundtable, as they thought if choosing a Penguin, you'd have to go with Malkin. Fifty games later, I imagine the pendulum has swung the other way to Crosby (except among his legion of irrational haters), now a 30-goal-and-counting scorer.

But I'd venture this: Every player's going to have his slumps. While an $8.7 million salary amps up the pressure on each guy, I've always pegged Crosby for a guy who can handle it better (and maintain a complete game even when the points aren't building up) -- he's been trained all his life for the North American game and its values. Malkin, on the other hand, strikes me as a streakier guy with more fragile confidence, so you're going to have these lulls and funks in his career. But we've all seen him at his game-changing, dominant best, and it was no fluke. Somehow, I think that Malkin will return.

*  *  *

But enough about their guys. Tonight we watch our guys continue to shine. I hope.

Prediction: Roloson vs. Johnson? Overtime is avoided, Josh Bailey's streak continues, the Islanders become the talk of the night on NHL On the Fly.

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