These division foes, separated by 27 points, have faced each other only twice so far, and the meetings were on opposite ends of the one-win-in-21 streak that submarined the Islanders' season. Previously, the concern for the Isles was just surviving with an injury depleted lineup -- and they did, doing the bend-don't-break drill with an OT loss in October and a shootout "win" just before the New Year.
Now the Islanders have Kyle Okposo back (though Mark Streit is still out for the long haul, joined by Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau), and it's the Penguins who are without their two most important players: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will sit this one out.
The Islanders have another emerging addition, perceived if not actually new (no, not Nabokov): Michael Grabner is on a six-game point streak, slowly building his cult status among fans and doing it in an impressive way: Of Grabner's 19 points, only one has come via the powerplay (the traditional NHL scorer's route to easy money). In fact, with 17 even-strength points, Grabner trails only Blake Comeau (21), John Tavares (21) and Matt Moulson (18) in that department despite seeing at least two minutes less of EV time per game. His 12 even-strength goals are tied with Moulson for the team lead. Not bad for a 23-year-old waiver pickup.
It's been fun to watch Grabner's season progress, and I'm probably not alone in thinking that if the Islanders powerplay positions are spoken for (Grabner's season average is 0:24 per game there), then his speed is enticing for the PK (where he's had 0:55 per game). It's the Austrian's speed that fans tend to notice first (and possibly overvalue), followed by what feels like a low conversion rate on breakaways (which also may be exaggerated).
See, I think Grabner's a victim of his own success there: He's not Pavel Bure (who missed his own share of breakaways, but also converted a bushel). Rather, Grabner is a guy with speed to burn, still figuring out all the ways to use it, but one of those ways is by making something out of nothing, creating half-scoring chances other guys would never sniff, often at the end of a wild spring with a defenseman who just coughed it up now diving to limit his space. It's still early, shot-sample-wise, but his 14.3% shooting percentage (on 98 shots so far) isn't the mark of someone who's missing lots of chances.
We're 43 games in, with a little less than half a season to get a look at Grabner's finishing ability. If this combo with Frans Nielsen and Okposo sticks, I suspect Okposo's puck-winning abilities are going to create more non-breakaway chances for Grabner. Free agency awaits this summer, but at least it's RFA status. In that sense, Grabner is one of many interesting decisions that await Garth Snow -- and one of many that may look quite different in April than they do today.
- Seriously, I can see more of Parenteau-Tavares-Moulson followed by Okposo-Frans-Grabner and then hope for Blake Comeau, Rob Schremp and Josh Bailey to nail down some chemistry. Incidentally, Comeau and Bailey are the only two Islanders with two points against the Pens this season.
- If that Twitter account is legit (seems so), and if that update was correct (it was gone last night), then Kevin Poulin would be getting the start.
- The Islanders haven't won in Pittsburgh since December 2007 (Comeau got the game-winner, DiPietro the victory), back when they met eight times a season.
- Crosby will definitely miss the All-Star Game and Malkin might, too. Heh, good thing the Isles don't have that worry. Though in all seriousness, you have to expect Grabner will have fun with his secondary role there. Maybe he can chirp Moulson on Twitter from Raleigh.
- NHL drama from last night: Experienced fighter breaks nose of player who never fights, but was throwing gloved jabs. Discuss.
- No updates as of last night on the Evgeni Nabokov situation. Hardball on the Isles' end sits just fine with me. GM's play by rules; players can be expected to do the same. The unspoken wild card here is that no one really knows what kind of game shape he'll be in even if he does bother to eventually report to an NHL team and earn a spot.
FIGs: As always, you can leave your FIG (First Islanders Goal) pick here or in the evening game thread. Just keep them all in the same comment tree -- i.e. make your pick a reply to the first FIG pick you see.