The historical theme surrounding tonight's game will be how the Penguins are still winless (and pointless, even) in their new [Putting Lipstick on Burning Lots of Coal] Center, but the Islanders have a more pressing topic to hash out in this game: Some forward is about to lose his spot in the lineup.
If John Tavares returns to the lineup tomorrow night at home as expected, things start to get interesting with Garth Snow's three-lines-deep (!?) assembly of talented-but-green aspirants. First Tavares returns, then Rob Schremp a little later...if you reach forward a few months to Kyle Okposo's return then suddenly you're talking about real money. Fun "good problem to have" decisions that include "What to do with Nino, mature beyond his years?"
Doug Weight talked about this in his clip with Chris Botta earlier this week. The Captain has talked to his charges about:
"...coming in and challenging each other in practice and games, challenging each other to compete for ice time. These guys care about each other, and they're close, but great teams feed off their competitive nature."
Well I'll be, these kids are growing up a little. And Captain Weight is going to make sure they know about liking each other and competing each other in relative teammate harmony.
So this is a big game for speedy waiver claim Michael Grabner, introduced into the lineup sooner than expected thanks to JT's injury. It might not be as big for P.A. Parenteau, but you know at some point he has to assert a solid claim on that first line role or he falls back into the "If not top six, what then?" pool. For Nino Niederreiter, every game through Game 9 is huge, but the determination of his fate will be more philosophical than practical in nature -- in any case, largely beyond his control.
Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey, they just need to keep doing what they're doing (for Comeau, late game tough-luck-but-bad-position penalty aside). There's talent in all five of the previously mentioned guys, so you look to the other end of the lineup for who might get bumped when Tavares returns. Even so, someone has a lot of ice time to lose.
Martinek & Eaton v. Crosby and Assorted Wingers
Like Wednesday night when he did mostly very well against Alex Ovechkin -- you can fault his turnover, fine, but then look at his entire game limiting Ovi's chances -- Radek Martinek should be out there against Sidney Crosby a lot. There was only one Isles-Pens meeting before Marti got injured last year; it was the opener, and he saw nearly 11 minutes of even-strength time against Crosby.
The difference this year is that, unless Scott Gordon changes, ex-Pen Mark Eaton will be next to him against his former teammate. That alone should be fun to watch, and fun to see if Dan Bylsma cares. With the Pens frustrated at home in three games already, you have to imagine Crosby will be ticked off and firing away. (And if you believe in narratives of the heart-and-drive nature, Crosby does -- to steal Raising Arizona phraseology -- "appear to be capable.")
Speaking of Eaton, while the Islanders are beginning a brutal road-heavy stretch of the schedule, he's taking the old "this is good for bonding" approach:
"There’s a lot more going out to dinners as a team and every season there’s new faces (in the locker room), so it gives guys like me a chance to get to know teammates a little better and get away and bond a little bit. So road trips like this, early in the season, can be good for a team and we’re looking forward to it."
- From the Pens side, Evgeni Malkin is on the wing for real this year even with Jordan Staal still out. Newcomer Zbynek Michalek is out 2-4 weeks and old friend Arron Asham is hurt for a little while longer, too.
- If it were me Dwayne Roloson would get the call in the first of this back-to-back, saving Rick DiPietro for home ice against Colorado. But expect a hint of a decision to come first via Katie Strang's Twitter. If you see something, as always post it in comments.
- The Isles were just 1-3-2 against the Pens last year, and their top three scorers in the series (Mark Streit, Tavares, Okposo - 15 pts. among them) are all out.
This team is fighting from so far behind with these significant injuries, but you can't help being hopeful at this stage. A little luck and some surprising growth -- from a Grabner or Parenteau, too -- and maybe they stay competitive enough until their best players return. That's the idea anyway. If mental focus and approach has any influence over the fact they just need more time (and more talent), then I like the chances of a captain like Weight to help bring that out in them.