The New York Islanders are still aching from their come-from-behind, fall-from-ahead OT loss in Winnipeg Sunday. Mentally, they need to put behind them the opportunity for two points missed -- what would be bonus points given how the first two periods played out.
Physically, they have to deal with the accumulating fatigue of the road and an ankle injury to Travis Hamonic. Hamonic, who left Winnipeg wearing a boot, was to be a game-time decision but is saying he's ready to go. Assuming he's not risking worsening the injury -- he insists he's not -- it's a bullet dodged for the Islanders as they face the forward firepower of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Isles have had an abysmal record in Pittsburgh in recent years, though last season's home-and-home sweep in late March helped keep the Pens from the division and conference titles. (Granted, it only helped the Short Island Smurfs.) Incredibly, the Pittsburgh half of that one included Josh Bailey collecting five points.
Bailey is still out tonight of course, rehabbing from an injury picked up during the lockout. On that note, so is Jesse Joensuu. For a long time. The Isles announced today that the Finn Named Jesse had hernia surgery that will keep him out an estimated five to seven weeks.
It's another heartbreaking turn for Joensuu, who spent a year back in Europe honing his game enough to earn a one-way contract to return to the Islanders this year. But the lockout put him back playing in Europe again, where he started off fantastically before breaking his hand. That injury looked like it would keep him on the shelf long enough to miss a critical post-lockout training camp...until the lockout went so long that Joensuu's hand had healed.
Great timing after all, right? Wrong. He missed camp in January anyway thanks to a groin injury, which has now obviously turned into the dreaded hernia. It's bordering on a wasted season now.
Three Questions with Pensburgh
For some insight into how things are going with the Pens, below are three questions from myself to HooksOrpik of Pensburgh. (We reciprocated with a few answers over here.)
1. How's the goaltending situation looking now that Vokoun is in the fold? Is he pushing Marc-Andre Fleury as intended?
So far, so good. Vokoun is publically at least, saying the right things about being here to support Fleury and do what he can to help the team. The Pens have started Vokoun twice in the first five games, including the game after Fleury gave up 5 goals to Toronto last week. But then Fleury had his best outing after that, the last game in Ottawa, so I’d have to say the plan seems to be pushing Fleury positively so far.
2. Seems like there have been mixed reviews -- even trade rumors over the summer? -- on Paul Martin in the years since his big signing. How's he doing this year? Think he'll finish out his contract as a Penguin?
Paul Martin definitely has a target on his back for Penguin fans- he has a high salary ($5 million cap hit) but he doesn’t hit anyone and he’s not going to have a highlight goal or rack up the assists on the powerplay. He’s a guy who plays 25 minutes a night, often against the opponent’s best competition, so he’s going to end up on the ice for a goal against. There were trade and buyout rumors, but they have been just that to this point. Management and coaches definitely have a higher opinion of Martin than the average Penguin fan, that’s for sure.
So far this year Martin has been really good, arguably the team’s steadiest and best defender in the young season. When Martin’s game is going, he’s got good gap control to on-rushing forwards and can use his stick and positioning to dictate turnovers or at least deflect pucks away from danger. So far he’s been doing that. He’s been paired this season with Brooks Orpik, and the two have meshed well so far together, functioning as the "shutdown" D line- so expect the Pens to try to match Martin/Orpik up against the Tavares line every chance they can get.
Long term, I could see the Pens considering buying out Martin this summer (he’d have 2 years left on his deal) but only because of salary cap concerns. The Penguins are going to push big time to re-sign Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang this summer, a year before they’d both be free agents, and it’s hard to imagine they can stay under the cap without buying out or trading Martin. People smarter than me are in charge of the numbers, but I would think they at least have to consider shedding Martin’s cap hit this summer to think about long-term salary structure.
3. Any particular Penguins who played or didn't play during the lockout and look the better or worse for it?
The Penguins are kind of unique that only one of them (Malkin) really played during the lockout. A group of about 10 players fluttered in and out almost daily in Pittsburgh for informal practices, but other than Malkin no one had game experience this fall.
Malkin has tried to do to much at times, because he feels like he has to carry the team right now until everyone else gets back up to speed. This is the usual giveaways and ill-advised penalties that he sometimes can take when he goes "Superman" and tries to do too much by himself.
The Pens older players have struggled- Chris Kunitz has 1 goal (an empty netter) and Pascal Dupuis only has 1 (a gift on the PP). Both of them play with Crosby and both have looked very rusty in terms of even the basics such as staying onsides, collecting and giving good passes and timing plays. Other Pens like Matt Cooke (0 points), Brandon Sutter and Tyler Kennedy (a point a piece) have also produced almost nothing.
James Neal was training with Gary Roberts and company up in Canada and he looks sensational with 24 shots on goal through five games. Crosby has been kicking back into gear, but some of his little passes and timing has been slightly off too, a reminder of just how much time he’s missed in the past 24+ months.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight over in this thread.