New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Preview: No Marc-Andre Fleury to kick around

Miss you both. - USA TODAY Sports

The Isles get Radek Martinek back, the Pens get Kris Letang back. So call it even, then.

The New York Islanders meet the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight for the first time this season and the first time since their surprisingly (for some) close 2013 playoff series.

One factor in that series' turn will remain true tonight: The Islanders won't get to toss bouncing pucks at Marc-Andre Fleury.

Nyi-stickstripeslim_medium Pit-slim_medium
Islanders (3-3-3) @ Penguins (7-2-0)
7 p.m. EDT | MSG+ | Audio: WRHU/WRCN
[ALLCAPS BECAUSE SHOUTING] Center
Fans of Fowl: PensBurgh

Though Fleury has rebounded from a miserable, job-shaking 2013 playoffs to post a .930 save percentage in 483 minutes of 2013-14, he will sit tonight -- part of a back-to-back and three games in four nights for the Penguins -- in favor of backup Jeff Zatkoff.

Zatkoff only has one, unimpressive game thus far this year, and he wouldn't be with the big club if not for Tomas Vokoun's blood clot condition. Though teams sometimes respond to backups in kind, the Islanders will start Evgeni Nabokov tonight, presumably saving backup Kevin Poulin for Pennsylvania's far weaker offense tomorrow night against the Flyers.

If I understand fan angst narratives correctly, the Islanders will let Zatkoff shut them out because "we always lose to backups/let slumping NHLers score/hit poorly against rookie pitchers/let backup quarterbacks shine," etc.

Or they can treat Zatkoff as the Panthers did, torching him for six goals on 30 shots on Oct. 11.

Lineups

The fun with goalies has impressively gotten us 200 words into this preview without mentioning Radek Martinek. But the longtime Islander is indeed back, resurrected even, fulfilling the quota that requires at least one Hapsburg subject to be in the lineup at all times. (Slovakian Lubomir Visnovsky is injured, precipitating Martinek's long-threatened return. Austrian Michael Grabner is serving the second and final game of his suspension.)

Mercifully, this encounter should be the last excuse to refer to last season's playoffs for a while. It's time for the Isles to get busy living in 2013-14. Protests Kyle Okposo in Arthur Staple's gameday blog:

"We are not the same team we’ve been in the past," he said. "We’re the team that won 11 of 12 to get in the playoffs last season. We still know how to win. We’ve had a couple breakdowns early this season, but we’re going to be just fine."

The truth, almost always, is somewhere in between. The critical difference between fan nirvana and fan mass suicide is in how far, and to which side of hockey's toss-up middle, that blurry needle lies.

Expect them to line up something like this:

26 Matt Moulson – 91 John Tavares – 21 Kyle Okposo
96 Pierre-Marc Bouchard – 51 Frans Nielsen – 12 Josh Bailey
29 Brock Nelson – 16 Peter Regin – 15 Cal Clutterbuck
17 Matt Martin – 53 Casey Cizikas – 13 Colin McDonald

47 Andrew MacDonald – 3 Travis Hamonic
14 Thomas Hickey - 4 Radek Martinek
46 Matt Donovan -
7 Matt Carkner

The Penguins are welcoming a slightly better returning defenseman to their lineup: Kris Letang dresses for the first time this season.

Look for them to line up like so:

14 Chris Kunitz - 87 Sidney Crosby - 9 Pascal Dupuis
36 Jussi Jokinen - 71 Evgeni Malkin - 12 Chuck Kobasew
15 Tanner Glass - 16 Brandon Sutter - 59 Jayson Megna
27 Craig Adams - 46 Joe Vitale - 5 Deryk Engelland

7 Paul Martin- 44 Brooks Orpik
2 Matt Niskanen - 3 Olli Maatta
4 Rob Scuderi - 58 Kris Letang

The Penguins are absolutely hot, with a good 5-on-5 goal ratio (1.27, 10th) and productive special teams (21.9% PP, 80.8% PK). The Isles are treading water, benefiting from ridiculously hot special teams (28.1%, 84%) but struggling to recapture the 5-on-5 play that keyed their playoff appearance last spring.

When these two teams meet, will it be more like the laughable blowouts of Games 1 and 5, or the riveting Games 2, 3, 4 and 6 from their playoff tilt?

The answer, like last spring, may be in the goalies' hands.

FIG Picks

Leave your First Islanders Goal picks over here.

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