Islanders-Penguins matchups have become heated, nasty and physical affairs since the clubs met in the 2013 playoffs.
Tonight the Islanders and Penguins battle in their most crucial meeting since that series, as the clubs fight for Metropolitan Division seeding with just two games remaining in the regular season. The Islanders clinched a playoff berth Thursday night, after the Boston Bruins lost to the Florida Panthers 4-2. The Penguins have yet to clinch, so the Islanders could put the Penguins in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06
“A lot is at stake at this point in the season, so it’ll be as much of a playoff game as we’ve experienced this year,” Travis Hamonic said.
An Islanders-Penguins playoff series seemed highly likely a month ago, but as the Washington Capitals have surged up the standings, these two teams can no longer meet in the first round. The Islanders need to win out and hope for a Capitals loss if they want home ice in the opening round.
“It’ll be a playoff game and that’s the way we are going to approach it,” John Tavares said. “We understand the task at hand. We’ll do whatever we can to get the victory Friday.”
The Islanders are coming off an emotional roller coaster in Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Islanders rallied from a 4-1 deficit to tie the game with 28 seconds to play, but the Flyers pulled ahead with three seconds left. It was a heartbreaking loss, but the Islanders say they’ve regrouped and moved on.
“We’ve had some games not go our way, some games we probably deserved to win,” Tavares said. “If we go out there and play our game we are going to give ourselves the best chance to win. We are playing a good hockey team, but we believe in our group. We have a lot of character, depth and a lot of talent and we’ve proven that throughout the year.”
The Islanders are 3-1-0 against the Penguins this season and have won three straight against their Metropolitan Division rivals. Kyle Okposo scored four goals in the most recent contest, including a natural hat trick in the third period, as the Islanders roared back from a 3-2 deficit to a 6-3 win. The Islanders also scored back-to-back wins over the Penguins on Nov. 21 and 22.
Tonight’s game pits two of the NHL’s scoring leaders against each other, as John Tavares and Sidney Crosby face off. Tavares (36 goals, 47 assists) and Crosby (28goals, 55 assists) are tied with Jamie Benn (32 goals, 51 assists) atop the league leaderboard.
Crosby has points in six of his last seven games (four goals, five assists), while Tavares has nine points (two goals, seven assists) during a four-game point streak.
“I really haven’t been worrying about it,” Tavares said of the league scoring title. “You see it, but the way I approach the game is always the same. I just try to do the right things. We are trying to get in the playoffs and fight for home ice, that’s where the focus has been.”
Islanders’ fans are familiar with the Penguins offensive potential. Evgeni Malkin has six points (two goals, four assists) in four games against the Islanders this season and is second in Pens scoring with 70 points (28 goals, 42 assists). Patric Hornqvist has six points (three goals, three assists) in three games against the Isles this season.
“They are a high-powered team,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “They have guys that are very creative and very dynamic, so it’s a defense-first mentality. We know what their skill is. We have to make it a 200-foot game, make them come and make them defend.”
The Islanders will want to press the Penguins depleted back end, as Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta are all sidelined.
The Penguins had the special teams advantage during the season series, scoring four power-play goals to the Islanders two, but the Isles penalty kill has stepped up in the past month. The Islanders’ shorthanded unit has killed 35-of-37 opportunities, spanning 16 games. The Pens’ power play converted four of its last 19 opportunities.
“They are fighting for the end just like we are,” Anders Lee said. “It’s going to be a great playoff-like game; back and forth. It’s going to be gritty. It’s two huge points for both teams.”
Puck drop is at 7 p.m.