17 games into the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are getting ready for their sixth and seventh divisional games of the season. They're 3-2-0 so far, with wins over the Islanders, Devils and Rangers and losses to the Flyers and Rangers. A big secret to the Pens success in running away with the division title last season - they won the Metropolitan by more points than any other division winner- was the 20-8-2 they put up last season.
The opponent should add to the excitement- the Islanders are, somewhat surprisingly, sitting alone at #2 in the division so far this season with a 12-6-0 record.
Expected opponent lines (via Lighthouse Hockey)
Brock Nelson - John Tavares - Nikolay Kulemin
Mikhail Grabovski - Frans Nielsen - Kyle Okposo
Anders Lee - Ryan Strome - Josh Bailey
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck
Slight change from what we're used to seeing traditionally from the Isles- Okposo and Tavares have been broken up. It will be interesting to see if the balance gives them more opportunities. Nelson could be the player to watch out for- he's got a team high 9 goals (and tied for team him 18 points) after a fast start that saw him score 4 goals and add 3 assists in the first 3 games of the season. He's naturally cooled off since then, but does have goals in his past two games, and 5 of his 9 goals have come on the power play, so the Pens will definitely have to watch out for Nelson when killing penalties.
The Islanders 4th line figures to be one to watch too- Cizikas is a player who gave the Pens fits in the 2013 playoff series (2g,2a in the six games) and Martin+Clutterbuck are the types of aggressive, physical checking 4th line wings that can be a handful if they are able to get on the forecheck and pin the opponents in the NYI offensive zone at all. Hopefully they can be mitigated by quick passes from the Pens defense to get out of the zone and then exploit the fact that they aren't very good in their own end.
Home and homes typically mean seeing 4 different goalies, and that will be the case here. Interestingly the teams have staggered when they are playing their starters and not matching them up. Friday night, in Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury looks for career win #300 against former Pens draft pick Chad "Don't Call me Ocho" Johnson.
Johnson has some ugly numbers on the season so far (4-2-0 record is OK but a 3.27 GAA and .878 save % is not) and has never faced the Penguins in his short NHL career.
Saturday night on Long Island it will be the Penguins backup, Thomas Greiss 's turn to face the Islanders starter Jaroslav Halak. Halak started the year pretty rocky but has won his last 5 games and has settled into playing for yet another new team.
Nice piece from LHH for their preview, including the tidbit that the Isles waived Blake Comeau a few years ago. Being as Comeau is expected to play with Sidney Crosby, they can see the redemption, back-breaking goal coming a mile away. Let's hope their dread is fulfilled.
I also think the best NHL funny moment of the week came the other night when Bob McKenzie did the Lord's work by calling out Mike Milbury for how awful of an NHL GM he is. McKenzie da best.
3 Keys for the Pens
1) New 1st line Sidney Crosby's line isn't often changed if it doesn't have to be, and he has almost no familiarity with Blake Comeau (the two have only played a total of 21 combined minutes in games all season long, so far). How will they mesh, will their be instant chemistry or will the team have to try and rotate more bodies on the right wing? That sounds eerily familiar situation to last year when Dupuis got hurt and they couldn't find a good fit for that line. Ideally Comeau hits the ground (ice?) running playing on Crosby's line and is all jacked up to make a good impression against his old team.
2) Exploiting the NYI PK . The Islanders rank only 25th in the league while down a man. The Pens great power play has tailed off a bit lately, but they should have the opportunity to pounce a little on what's been a weaker PK'ing team so far this season. The Pens PP can get in a groove quickly and scoring 4 or 5 goals over the next two nights on the man advantage is a good road map to winning. Scoring 0 or 1 is a good road map towards not winning. Simple enough to say, huh?
3) It's not over early. The Islanders have the best record in the league (5-1-0) when they give up the first goal of the game. Why? Who knows- but I do know that other than old man Lubomir Visnovsky (38 years young) their 3 oldest players (Grabovski, Nielson and Johnny Boychuk) are all 30 years old and then everyone else playing will be in their 20's. This is a very young opponent. They don't know any better, and they keep trying hard even if they are losing. The Pens, who have blown a few leads this year, need to consider that if they find themselves up a goal or two in the second/third period. The game isn't over, and they can't coast to a win against a young, hungry and opportunistic team.
Infographic (courtesy the Penguins)