New York Islanders
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What to watch for: Penguins looking ahead to Washington?
*Division games can never be overlooked, especially not a matchup against an Islanders team who have won four in a row, seven of ten and are coming off a 4-0 drubbing of the first-place New Jersey Devils.
There are twelve games between today and the Olympic break, and the Penguins may consider it the most important stretch of their season so far. Tonight’s game will be a good way to start this stretch, or it will be another sign the Pens aren’t over their struggles.
The next three weeks are important: five divisional games, three games against current division leaders (Buffalo and Washington twice), a rematch game with the Detroit Red Wings and two games against very formidable Ottawa and Nashville teams.
A good roll heading into the Olympic break would certainly help the Penguins regain the swagger they carried early in the season, and may help them get a jump on the mad dash to the playoffs that begin March 2 in Buffalo. After the break, the Pens finish the season with 20 games in 40 days.
With that in mind, the Penguins cannot overlook the Islanders. In their down years, the Isles still played a tough brand of hockey against the Penguins. That will likely intensify now that New York is after its fifth-straight win.
New York Islanders
The teams have split their first two decisions this season. The Pens beat the Islanders in only the second game of the season, 4-3, a shootout decision. The Isles beat the Pens 3-2 on November 27 on John Tavares’ late goal.
The Islanders sport a few names who will give the Pens problems. Rookie center John Tavares has been all that was advertised during the draft, producing points on a consistent basis and giving the Islanders the franchise player they needed.
Trent Hunter has been a Penguin killer for the last few seasons, and former Penguin Richard Park is a speed demon who will cause problems in the Penguins defensive zone. Another former Pittsburgh prospect, Matt Moulson, has been a welcome surprise this season, landing 19 goals and 32 points so far.
Oft-injured goalie Rick DiPietro has given the Islanders even more confidence in net since his return, most lately posting a shutout against Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey last night. This is the second of back-to-back games for the Islanders. Dwayne Roloson will likely get the start tonight.
Goaltending was the story for the Pens against Vancouver (how poised did youngster Alexander Pechursky look after being tossed into the fire?), and Brent Johnson will make the return to start tonight. Fleury is still nursing a broken finger, and John Curry looked very uncomfortable in his performance at Vancouver.
The bigger story for the Pens will be the play of Evgeni Malkin. Malkin has received a bit of criticism in the media lately for his slump, but the last few games have seen him show at least the desire to get back to form. Malkin is getting physical, skating with authority and driving the puck to the net.
He landed a much-needed goal in the laugher at Vancouver, but again hurt his own efforts by taking two more minor penalties. Malkin is getting back on his game, but he could certainly get there faster by staying on the ice and out of the box.
Pascal Dupuis will return to the top line with Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin tonight. The line formed a bit of chemistry during the games they played together, as Dupuis’ speed has been a nice complement to Crosby’s speed. Crosby has been held pointless in his last two games. Fourth in the NHL scoring race, it won’t hurt the Pens’ chances of winning to see him back on the score sheet tonight.
The Pens third line remains unchanged, and for good reason. They have proven to be one of the best lines in hockey. Staal, Cooke and Kennedy have combined for 11 points in the Pens last three games and have been as constant a force as Pittsburgh has had in the last two seasons.
Injury News, Notes
As reported, Brent Johnson gets the start tonight. Johnson is 5-4 on the season with a 2.48 GAA and .919 save percentage.
Chris Kunitz (abdominal surgery) remains sidelined for the Penguins. The Islanders will be without defensemen Radek Martinek and Brendan Witt. Winger Tim Jackman is also out for the Islanders.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik (knee) is a coaches decision tonight.