No game, or pair of games, is critically important when your team is 12-6 in mid-November. But this weekend's home-and-home between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins offers an entertaining peek at the Metropolitan Division's top two teams, a pair with recent playoff history who could very well be headed that way again.
When Blake Comeau lost out in a numbers game on the Island and was claimed by the Calgary Flames three years ago, no one could have expected he would end up on Sidney Crosby's wing in a division-lead series against his original team. But here we are. Hockey is funny.
Islanders (12-6, 2nd/Metro) @ Penguins (13-3-1, 1st/Metro)
7 p.m. EST | MSG (for real!) | WRHU
[ALL CAPS=SERIOUS ENERGY] Center
Currently healthy, we think: PensBurgh
Of course, it wasn't long ago that anyone would've been stunned to learn the top-line winger Comeau replaced was previous checking line guy Pascal Dupuis. Crosby is so good, he creates sterling numbers for just about any linemate. But guys like Dupuis, and to a lesser extent Comeau, are good enough to make hay when given such golden opportunities.
- Both teams have set their goaltending rotation for this series, and each has elected to dress their backup on the road. That means Chad Johnson against Marc-Andre Fleury tonight, with Thomas Greiss facing Jaroslav Halak tomorrow on Long Island.
- Though Michael Grabner made the trip, he will not yet re-enter the lineup.
- This is their second meeting and second in Pittsburgh. The Penguins ended the Isles' season-opening win streak last month, a preview of close collisions to come.
- During the vengeance win over Tampa on Tuesday, Jack Capuano mixed up lines mid-game -- the kind of thing that is always too soon or too late depending on Any Given Fan you're speaking with. They scored afterward, but that more tells me they have several good players rather than "oh hey, the mixup worked."
- Nevertheless, players and coaches do these things, and I'm all for tinkering with the top line to maximize the full 12. So tonight expect this:
Brock Nelson - John Tavares - Nikolay Kulemin
Mikhail Grabovski - Frans Nielsen - Kyle Okposo (the new FNGO)
Anders Lee - Ryan Strome - Josh Bailey
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck
Hooray for depth! And boy, when Grabner gets back in...
TV: MSG, no plus
You read that right above. Tonight's game is on MSG The Regular, as the Smurfs game has been canceled due to the monumental snow (even by Buffalo's standards) in Buffalo. As Mark noted, all it took was an act of God to get the Isles on MSG's primary channel.
This is our first personal look at Mike Johnston, the not-first-choice coach the Penguins hired to replace Dan Bylsma. He has the team playing outstanding, even if you disregard the top power play they're sporting. The PK under Gary Agnew has recovered after a first week. Paul Martin explains adjustments both players and staff made to each other:
It can be a hard thing. There has been some compromise in that maybe he brings something to the table that can be effective, (but) there are some things that we won't like as a killing unit. Some things we didn't think were beneficial for the way we play or the personnel that we have. With the guys we have, we've come to an understanding, an agreement."
If these two teams meet again in the playoffs, a test for both will be adjusting and countering each team's tendency. Apparently Johnson is already in that state of mind:
#Pens Coach Johnston treating 2-game series vs. #Isles as playoff series. Will work on in-game & post-game adjustments to counter NYI -SK— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) November 20, 2014
Of course, now he has to adjust without Dupuis, out for potentially the season with the latest Penguins health scare. For now, that means Comeau will orbit the zone on the first line -- and quite likely hurt his old team.
This should be fun. The Islanders are now deeper than they've ever been since the Penguins resurrected under their chain of lottery fortune in the mid-2000s. So two teams that respect each other, hate each other, and tend to lure each other into track meets, will now try and match with disciplined structure and the Metro's best display of skill and speed.
Bring it on.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight here. Don't pick Grabner...yet.