Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins started the season 9-2-2 but have since been in a little bit of a slide. They've gone 4-4-1 in their past nine games without putting together back-to-back wins, something they're hoping to change.
The New York Islanders have the fewest points in the Eastern Conference but are coming off a 2-1 overtime victory against the Calgary Flames on Monday, a win they desperately needed. A quarter of the way through the season, the Islanders are in danger of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs after winning a postseason round for the first time in 23 years last season.
The Penguins (13-6-3) have defeated the Islanders (7-10-4) twice this season and look to make it three straight at Barclays Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. E.T; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).
Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: What can we say about Sidney Crosby that hasn't already been said? He missed the first six games of the season with a concussion and has scored 15 goals in the 16 games since returning. Crosby scored the tying goal with 14 seconds left Saturday in a 4-3 shootout win against the New Jersey Devils and has arguably been the MVP of the League so far this season.
Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin continue to impress. Kessel has six goals and 15 assists in 22 games. He's practically on a point-per-game pace. Malkin had three assists against the Devils and has 21 points (eight goals) in 22 games.
Matt Murray looks like the goalie who backstopped the Penguins to the Cup and was a contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy last season. In eight starts this season, Murray is 7-1-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average, a .939 save percentage and one shutout. He's allowed 13 goals in 445 minutes.
Video: NJD@PIT: Crosby ties the game with 14 seconds left
Minuses: How does the goalie situation work out? Marc-Andre Fleury started off great, but he hasn't been good since then and is adjusting to playing less. He's been the Penguins' starting goalie and their backbone for so long, but he's 6-5-3 with a 3.38 GAA and .901 save percentage and clearly not their best option right now. He's allowed six, four, one and five goals in his past four games, respectively.
Pittsburgh needs to have its defensemen committed to playing defense -- they're all mostly offensive guys, but they defend in numbers. It's also incumbent on the forwards to help if they want to play the way coach Mike Sullivan wants them to play. The Penguins have allowed 15 goals in their past four games.
Pluses: There haven't been many positives for the Islanders this season, but one has been John Tavares. He had a goal and an assist Monday and leads New York in goals (six) and points (17). He's done it all for them and has been the one constant during their disappointing start to the season. He's one of the top 10 players in the League and is continuing to be who he is and what he is in spite of the challenges around him.
The Islanders were a good team last season, and there shouldn't be as much drop off as there has been. Although a lot of key pieces are gone (Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Matt Martin), I still don't think they should have seven wins in 21 games. That puck luck likely will balance out soon.
Video: CGY@NYI: Tavares roofs Bailey's no-look feed
Minuses: One big issue for them has been that they've given up a lot of late goals to give the other team either a tie or the lead. Those are key points that they have let slip away, and we all know how valuable each point can be. New York has four regulation wins this season.
The Islanders also have been very inconsistent. There are certain stretches in games when they are playing at least comparable to last season and then other times when they've played so poorly. It's a big reason why they haven't been able to put together a winning streak longer than two games.
New York hasn't figured out any line combinations. What are its best defense pairs and best forward pairings? How many linemates is Tavares going to have before somebody sticks with him? Okposo was a longtime linemate of his, but it has been an ongoing process for years and Tavares has had countless wings on either side of him. That certainly doesn't help when you don't have or don't know the right pieces to play with your franchise player.
Three Things to Watch
1. Speed of the Penguins
2. How does Jack Capuano manage his lines?
3. Can the Islanders win two in a row?