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Very Important Game: Islanders vs. Penguins on Thursday, November 7

The 2019 First Round rematch figures to be full of fireworks and excellent hockey.

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Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders - Game Two
For a second, I thought that Komarov’s face was poorly Photoshopped onto a hockey player’s bod—wait a minute...
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On April 10, 2019, the Islanders hosted the Penguins in Game 1 of the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was the first time since the late ‘80s that the Islanders had home-ice advantage in a playoff series and the fifth time these franchises met in the playoffs. Though the Islanders had won three of the previous four, the Penguins had bested them in the most recent series back in 2013. I remember not being able to focus at work that day, April 10. I was excited—and surprised, honestly, because at the beginning of the season, I thought all the Islanders had to look forward to in April was the Draft Lottery.

But, I was also nervous. This current iteration of Penguins, though not as strong as some recent incarnations, still had loads of ammunition in the form of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They had the talent to take over hockey games by themselves. They had always killed the Islanders, sure, but the Islanders have been bad throughout most of their careers.

The frightening part to me was that, until 2018, they had also always managed to beat Barry Trotz-coached teams in the playoffs. Capitals teams with more natural talent than the 2018-19 Islanders. It was largely Trotz’s guidance that converted these Islanders from the worst defensive team in ten years to the best defensive team in hockey in one season, but this was the real test to see if they were just a fluke or not.

That evening, with Nassau Coliseum glowing orange and shaking to its core like the beautiful radioactive explosion it was during the 2019 playoffs, Tom Kuhnhackl, a grinder with only seven points through 47 playoff games to that point, picked up a turnover and skated into the Pittsburgh zone one-on-five. The former Penguin glided around all five of his former teammates and rifled a wrist shot top-shelf past Pens goalie Matt Murray only 33 seconds into the game.

Such an unlikely event so early into Game 1 seemed to portend success—even though the goal was ultimately called back, it didn’t matter, because Jordan Eberle officially got the Isles on the board a minute and a half later.

Game 1 went back-and-forth, with the Penguins flashing that dangerous firepower late in the third period to force overtime. As we all know, playoff overtime is, well...

Luckily enough, the Penguins, who had been firing on all cylinders toward the end of the third, didn’t have the same boost to open the extra period and the Islanders were able to close out Game 1 in the first five minutes, thanks to budding superstar Mathew Barzal and fixture-of-the-franchise Josh Bailey.

The Penguins wouldn’t come anywhere close to victory for the rest of the series, a decisive sweep and no fluke.

Oh, man was it cathartic. The Islanders were a team that nobody, us included, predicted to make the playoffs in 2018-19. The Penguins were only a year removed from winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup. And the Islanders, who were underdogs despite having home ice advantage, suffocated the Penguins in four quick games. (I can’t quite remember what happened with the Islanders in the Second Round, but that doesn’t matter at the moment.)

For the Islanders, the 2018-19 season was a fun surprise, and the sweep simply the icing on the cake we didn’t even think we’d be getting. For the Penguins, however, it was a breaking point.

Their GM, Jim Rutherford, was disgusted by his team’s performance. Their division rivals silenced their big guns, holding Malkin to three points, Phil Kessel to two points, and Crosby to one. He declared there would be changes to the lineup that summer.

And the drama wasn’t done. He soon refused to deny he was considering a Malkin trade. He made Kessel very available, and soon saw that Kessel-rejected trade (he had an eight-team no-trade clause) with the Wild for Jason Zucker leak out. Then he said he expected to keep Kessel, only to trade him less than a month later to the Coyotes, Kessel’s preferred destination. News later broke that Malkin, who was reeling from a lackluster season—by his standards—requested a trade from the Penguins if they didn’t trade Kessel, essentially refusing to play alongside him anymore. There were stories that intimated this thousand-degree flameout was years in the making, wondering if this was it.

Fast-forward to this season, and, entering play on Monday, November 4, 2019, the Penguins sit at 17 points through 14 games, in the top wild card spot; the Islanders, meanwhile, are at 20 points through 13 games, good for second in the Metropolitan Division and currently riding a nine-game win streak that, if they take care of business on Tuesday night against the Senators, would be a ten-gamer entering Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh.

The Penguins did make some changes. They’re are trying to regain their identity, or perhaps reshape it, in an attempt to wring out another Stanley Cup or two before Crosby and Malkin get too old. In spite of a rash of injuries, Pittsburgh is holding steady.

The Islanders, meanwhile, still need to affirm that last season was no fluke to prognosticators predicting regression—their win streak is helping, and a victory over their rivals would go even further. Though they attempted to make some changes, they largely did not, save for swapping out Robin Lehner for Semyon Varlamov.

Thursday night will be the first time these two teams have met since April and ought to be a measuring stick for the two rivals going forward this season.

To add a little extra fuel to the fire, these two teams have never liked each other. Last season’s playoff series only magnified the hatred they displayed back in February 2011.

Okay, maybe not that much hatred, but look at what erupted in Game 2 last year:

It’s a new season, but that feeling doesn’t go away in just one summer. The Penguins will be looking to avenge their embarrassment, while the Islanders will be looking to reinforce it. Puck drop is 7:00 p.m. at Barclays Center, and there are plenty of good and/or cheap tickets still available. Game on.

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