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Game Preview: Islanders @ Penguins

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
In recent weeks, the biggest challenge for the New York Islanders seems to be the start of the game. They’ve let up the first goal in nine of their last 10 contests and it has contributed to their loss in seven. So when the puck drops at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, falling behind with an early goal from their opposition is not an option.

Defenseman Jack Hillen was one of the five skaters on the ice for the Buffalo Sabres goal scored 15 seconds into Sunday night’s contest and to say the least, he was extremely disappointed.

“It’s really frustrating,” Hillen said. “I felt like we were ready to go. It was just one of those things where the puck found its way in the back of the net. It can’t happen. I can’t put my finger on why it did. I felt like we were ready. Hopefully in the future it won’t and we’ll be able to cut down on that.”

Now that the slow starts have become a pattern, Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano said, “I think sometimes when you dwell on it, it’s like the power play, when you don’t score and guys start thinking about it, it becomes a tendency. It’s something we have to get better at.”

Jack Hillen #38 of the New York Islanders skates against Daniel Alfredsson #11 of the Ottawa Senators on January 13, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Senators defeat the Islanders 6-4. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
He also said that the first goal on Sunday was a result of a defensive breakdown, but he hopes to help rectify the problem quickly.

“From our standpoint, as coaches, A) we want to get them to be prepared to play, but B) players have to be held accountable as well,” Capuano said. “Maybe you try to start different guys, but we had a good start (at HSBC Arena) in Buffalo and hopefully that trend will continue.”

Capuano’s reference to the start in Buffalo was the Islanders go-ahead goal by Michael Grabner and also the only time the Islanders had a first period lead in the last three weeks. But in the last two games, a set of third-period goals have been critical for the Islanders offense and both goals were scored by an unexpected source: Jack Hillen.

While the defenseman has been playing with a lot of confidence and has been joining the offensive rush, the goals were just the second and third he has earned this season.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything differently than when I wasn’t scoring, but I think I’m just giving myself more opportunities and shooting the puck more,” Hillen said. “If you always look at all the high point defensemen, they always have lots of shots. So I think that’s the goal if you want to score and get some points, is to shoot the puck a lot.”

Doing those things is something that Capuano has been stressing to the Islanders blueliners.

“The one thing is we really want to make sure that our defensemen activate,” Capuano said. “We want to make sure that they’re part of the rush and part of the offensive zone play with our point shots. They know that’s what we want them to do. Jack (Hillen) played for me in Bridgeport and he’s using his asset, his skating ability and he’s getting up in the play. It’s paying dividends right now with a couple goals in his last few games here.”

Michael Grabner #40 of the New York Islanders skates against the Buffalo Sabres on January 23, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The Sabres defeated the Islanders 5-3. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
But Hillen isn’t one to take all the credit.

“We have a lot of mobile defensemen,” Hillen said. “I’m not the only one doing it. A couple other guys are jumping up in the play and if you have the wheels, and if you have the ability to do it, it helps create some offense. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of it.”

That kind of offensive play is exactly what the Islanders defensemen will need to contribute in Tuesday night’s matchup.

The Islanders have faced the Penguins twice this season, once just four games in and then again last month. What both games have in common is that the Islanders earned points in both contests, falling in overtime 3-2 at the start of the season and then defeating them 2-1 in the shootout in December, consequently shutting down Sydney Crosby and ending his 25-game point streak in the process.

This time, the Penguins bench will be different. Crosby has been sidelined since receiving a concussion on January 5th and his linemate, Evgeni Malkin, has been out since January 18th with a minor knee issue and a sinus infection. Since then, the Penguins defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2, but were also shutout by the New Jersey Devils 2-0.

Even with injuries to Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins will still have a top-notch lineup.

“Wilkes Barre is a very good hockey team in the American Hockey League,” Capuano said. “They’re number one in the whole league and I know a lot of their guys. I’m sure they’ll have a few of those guys in the lineup, but they have a lot of power with the guys they have and some of the call-ups so it’s going to be a tough task for us.”
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