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Penguins GameDay: Comrie back on 2nd line with Malkin

The Pittsburgh Penguins meet the New York Islanders Friday night at the CONSOL Energy Center. Pittsburgh has struggled to put together a consistent winning effort this year and will try for the fourth time Friday to get their first home win of the season. They took five wins from the Islanders in 2009-10.
10:31 a.m. – Morning Skate Update
Lines
Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis
Tangradi – Comrie – Malkin
Cooke – Talbot – Kennedy
Rupp – Letestu – Adams/Godard
D-Pairs
Martin – Letang
Goligoski – Lovejoy
Hutchinson – Engelland
Starting Goaltender: Brent Johnson (1-0-0, 1.00 GAA, .968 SV%
Scratches: Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek
Notes: After being a healthy scratch on Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Comrie is back on the 2nd line with Evgeni Malkin and Eric Tangradi.
Mark Letestu has moved down to the 4th line with Mike Rupp and Craig Adams. Eric Godard is taking a regular shift on the 4th line but he is not expected to play tonight.
Brooks Orpik (groin) will not play after doing some light skating this morning.

Game Preview: PENGUINS VS ISLANDERS

If the team is going to notch their first W in the new barn anytime soon, Friday’s game is going to have to be the one. The Islanders have lost eight straight contests on Pittsburgh ice dating back to the 2007-08 season and have taken only two of the last fourteen games in Pittsburgh.
In those eight straight losses in Pittsburgh, the Islanders have been outscored 39-15.
Last season the Pens took five of six from the Isles, posting a 5-1 record to New York’s 1-3-2 mark. Pittsburgh outscored New York 29-18 through those six games.
Pittsburgh is 15-3-1 in their last 19 games against the Islanders overall.
It was against the Islanders on the final game of the season that Sidney Crosby scored his 50th and 51st goals to tie Steven Stamkos for Rocket Richard Trophy honors. The Pens won that game 6-5 in overtime.
The Islanders are 1-1-1 through three games, good enough for second in the Atlantic through the first week of the season.
Following an opening-night overtime loss to the Dallas Stars, the Isles topped the Rangers, prevailing with 6 goals.
New York dropped a tight contest with Washington on Wednesday, 2-1.

THE FOUR-SQUARE DEFENSE

The Pens can’t score. Not enough to overcome defensive lapses, big-name injuries, inconsistent goaltending and a lack of “60-minute effort” through four games.
The usual suspect is the much-ballyhooed lack of top-six forwards (of which one was recovering from foot surgery and the other awaiting scoring chances from the press box during Wednesday’s loss). If the lack of scoring depth is a contributing factor, it is a minor one.
The Pens are 4-7 dating back to the beginning of the Montreal series. During that span, the defense has been exploited, the bounces have gone the other way and Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed a number of soft goals.
It’s hard, however, to make the argument that the Pens have been outplayed in that span.
Most important to note is that the Pens have been outshot only twice in those eleven games (both wins). The Pens tied the Devils at 31 shots apiece Monday (also a win).
Montreal seemed to discover a defensive wrinkle that neutralized the Penguins’ offensive-zone scoring prowess. It’s a simple strategy based on positioning and stick work, and it is rapidly suffocating the Pittsburgh offense.
By “stacking the box,” as it has been called, teams have been able to neutralize the set passing plays the Penguins love to execute in the offensive zone and block nearly every shot coming from the perimeter.
Essentially, four men stay in a tight box near the goaltender as the fifth is free to roam or pursue the puck carrier. A mass of players blocks every good shooting angle from the perimeter. Passing plays are being broken up by simply keeping defensive sticks on the ice.

Think of it as foursquare, the playground game – four players stand in their “box,” taking away passing lanes and putting themselves in position to readily contest a shot when of the Penguins fires one in from the perimeter.
The result has been that the Pens are forced to pass around the fringes of the offensive zone and take shots from the points, most of which are blocked by the four or five men in the box. The rest of those point shots seem to find the goaltender or miss the net completely. A number of times, the blocked shots and errant passes have resulted in rushes going the other way.
So far the only way to beat the setup has been to score from the perimeter, as in Evgeni Malkin’s point shot that was tipped in by Kunitz against Toronto. That has been mostly ineffective, though, and part of the reason why the Pens are collecting losses while outshooting their opponents regularly.
Scoring off the rush is perhaps the best way around it – score before the defense is allowed to set up. It worked in getting Crosby his first goal of the season Wednesday. Those types of chances are often the result of outworking the other team, something the Pens have done only in sequences this year.
The system has been equally effective without the fifth man free to roam. Consider the Penguins’ power play, which is already a lowly 15 percent effective through four games.
Getting around the box defense is going to be a matter of creating and capitalizing on rush chances or getting the puck low and working it into the net mouth for a garbage marker (see Talbot’s goal Wednesday).
Perhaps most importantly, the team needs to begin exercising the restraint needed to keep a traditionally pass-happy system from looking for the perfect shot and, most often, turning the puck over.
It will be on the coaching staff to foster an offensive system to answer the new defensive setup the Pens have faced, and it is on the players to execute on the odd-man, scramble and rush chances they create.
The Islanders will be without two of their best defensemen Friday and are 23rd in goals allowed this season (25th on the PK). It will be interesting to see if they try to employ the copycat system against the Pens, and if so, to what effect.

HOT HANDS

Blake Comeau has three goals in three games this season.
Crosby has averaged three points per game (15 total) in his last five games against the Islanders at home.
Paul Martin (1G, 3A) and Alex Goligoski (2G, 2A) are playing at a point per game pace through the Pens’ first four tilts.
Captain Doug Weight leads the Islanders with 4 points.

BRENT JOHNSON

No one on the team is blaming Marc-Andre Fleury for the Pens’ slow start. Nonetheless, Brent Johnson is set to get his second start in five games against New York.
Johnson was very good against New Jersey, turning away 30 of 31 shots in the effort Monday. His lone goal-against was a shot coming immediately off a defensive-zone faceoff loss, another problem plaguing the Pens early this season.
Johnson carries a 1.00-.968 line with one win in one chance. Fleury is toting 3.41-.853 line (41st in a league of 30 teams) through three losses in as many chances.
Long-term changes to the goalie rotation aren’t being discussed by Dan Bylsma or anyone else on the team. That hasn’t stopped the flapping gums around Pittsburgh from tossing the idea around after only four games.
If Johnson plays well against New York, it should give the coaching staff the confidence that they can safely bench Fleury for a stretch of games, perhaps to light a fire under his game, without jeopardizing their record.

PITTSBURGH SCRATCHES

The Pens will be without Jordan Staal, Arron Asham, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek again Friday.
. Staal and Asham began skating again this week and did so again this morning. Asham expects to return in two weeks as he rehabs a shoulder injury. Staal will be longer in returning, perhaps 4-6 weeks, after having missed training camp and considerable off-season recovery and training time following complications from foot surgery.
Michalek will miss 2-4 weeks, something of a blessing after original team estimates and the grimace on his face suggested something much worse than a few-week layoff.
Orpik is listed as day-to-day (groin). He did some light skating this morning but is not 100%.
Mike Comrie, a healthy scratch Wednesday against Toronto, will return to the lineup. Eric Godard is the odd man out. Godard had only three shifts in the game against Toronto.

ISLANDERS SCRATCHES

The Pens won’t be the only shorthanded team Friday. The Islanders will be without a few of their better players due to injury and idiocy.
Top defenseman Mark Streit is out, as is top forward Kyle Okposo. Both are recovering from shoulder surgery.
Center Rob Schremp is out for a few weeks with back problems. Star forward John Tavares may return for Friday’s tilt following post-concussion syndrome, but is likely a game-time decision.
Defenseman James Wisniewski is sitting the second of his two-game suspension. Wisniewski made a questionable gesture toward Sean Avery in the win over the Rangers. The move earned him a two-game vacation from the league discipline office.

STATS HEAD-TO-HEAD

Pittsburgh Penguins
GF – 2.5 per game – 16th overall
GA – 2.8 per game – 18th overall
PP – 15.0 percent – 16th overall
PK – 83.3 percent – 16 overall
New York Islanders
GF – 3.7 per game – 5th overall
GA – 3.3 per game – 23rd overall
PP – 31.3 percent – 4th overall
PK – 73.3 percent – 25th overall
Goalie Rick DiPietro is 1-0-1 this season (3.84-.855). That’s hardly better than Fleury’s 3.41-.853 line, though good enough for one win as the Islanders have scored eleven goals in three games.
Dwayne Roloson started Wednesday against Washington, allowing 2 goals on 26 shots.

Penguins Lineup

Lines
Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis
Tangradi – Comrie – Malkin
Cooke – Talbot – Kennedy
Rupp – Letestu – Adams/Godard
D-Pairs
Martin – Letang
Goligoski – Lovejoy
Hutchinson – Engelland
Starting Goaltender: Brent Johnson (1-0-0, 1.00 GAA, .968 SV%
Scratches: Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek
—–Will DePaoli and James Conley contributed to this report——

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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