The New York Islanders begin 2016 in an interesting spot: They are tied for second in the Eastern Conference after winning three of four games to close out 2015, losing only four games in regulation in December.
But in a league where most games are close, they looked a bit fortunate to come out on top in several of their wins. They are seven points ahead of tonight's opponent, but the Pittsburgh Penguins just might be finding their bearings under new coach Mike Sullivan, and tonight is the first step in what could be a lengthy stretch without Johnny Boychuk.
It's a challenging week ahead, too: Tonight's game in Pittsburgh is followed by an early start tomorrow against the Western Conference leading Dallas Stars, which is followed by a clash with the Eastern Conference leading Washington Capitals on Thursday.
Here is the coachspeak of late from Sullivan, who sounds like most coaches but, like most coaches, is probably speaking a bit of conceptual truth:
"It dawned on me that we’re trying to outscore teams," Sullivan said. "Maybe when we’re at home, it’s even that much more prevalent, as far as our mindset of trying to go out and outscore teams.
"What I posed to the players was, maybe we have to re-think our approach and not try to outscore teams, but to try to outplay teams."
The logic of that is hard to dispute, for a well-conceived game plan that is executed efficiently is a powerful tool.
"If we outplay teams by making good decisions with the puck, by not putting ourselves in a position where we beat ourselves through a lack of discipline or a lack of puck management or a lack of [attention to] detail, then we force opponents to have to bring their ‘A’ game and make really good plays and pay a price if they’re going to beat us," Sullivan said.
At the back end for the Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury returns from IR (concussion) to start tonight.
The Isles will start Thomas Greiss, who has been so key to several wins lately. Jaroslav Halak looks like he'll be off IR -- perhaps even starting tomorrow -- but for tonight it's still Greiss' net to defend.
The rest of the Islanders lineup is the same with the exception of Boychuk. The Isles were quick to recall Adam Pelech to make sure they had an extra defenseman on the road, but they aren't quick to dress him: Pelech is the 7th/pressbox blueliner tonight. Brian Strait steps in and, at least to start, will simply slot in Boychuk's vacated spot next to Calvin de Haan.
Hold on tight.
In the U.S., this one is televised on NHL Network (as well as MSG+2 locally). So depending on where you are and how various rights/blackouts mess with your happy time, plan accordingly.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight here. Game time is 7 p.m.