VERIZON GAME DAY REPORT
The Isles may be in last place in the Metropolitan Division, but the Pens know perhaps better than any team, especially after their first-round playoff series with New York in the spring, that their record doesn't take from their speed, skill and scoring ability.
The Isles' strength is their offense, and it will be bulked up with the return of left wing Thomas Vanek, who will play tonight after missing the last five with an upper-body injury. He is expected to play on the top line with John Tavares, who enters tonight tied for third in league scoring with 28 points (three behind leader Sidney Crosby), and Kyle Okposo, who has 22 points (6G-14A) in 20 games.
"It’s exciting to be back," said Vanek, who was acquired from Buffalo for longtime Tavares linemate Matt Moulson on Oct. 27. "(I'm) really anxious. I didn’t get to play many games with my new team here, so it’s always tough to watch. But at the same time, it’s a long season and it’s important to be healthy and be 100 percent out there."
Vanek is an elite offensive talent, a gifted goal scorer with the hands of a sniper who uses his big body to win battles around the net. He came to Long Island with eight straight 20-goal seasons and two with more than 40 and had a goal and two assists in six games with his new team before going down. He's hoping he and his linemates can rekindle the chemistry they'd been building.
"(The injury) was unfortunate because I think each game we got better," Vanek said. "Even the last two games I played, we didn’t show up on the scoresheet but I thought we generated a lot in Wash and Carolina. Hopefully, we can pick right up."
That's certainly something the Pens don't want to happen. One player who will likely be tasked with that assignment is defenseman Paul Martin, who played college hockey at Minnesota with Vanek and won a national championship with him back in 2003.
"Paul is, in my eyes – maybe I’m a little biased because he’sa good friend of mine – he’s one of the best," Vanek said. "He’s really patient back there. We had success together. He’s having success here. But at the same time, once the puck drops hopefully we can get the best of him."--Michelle Crechiolo
Goalie Jeff Zatkoff’s last start came on Nov. 2 in Columbus, where he made 19 saves to record his first NHL win and shutout in a 3-0 against the Blue Jackets.
“It’s always nice when your last game was a win, especially when you don’t play that often,” he smiled.
He had a long wait – nearly three weeks (20 days, to be exact) – for his next opportunity. But he knew it would come eventually, and he is ready for it.
“I’ve just been working hard in practice and taking care of my game, worrying about my game and good habits, and when coach tells me it’s my time to go, making sure I’m ready,” he said.
It’s been a process for Zatkoff, who’s played just three of the Penguins’ first 22 games, to figure out how to stay sharp during these long stretches between starts as he had been THE guy his entire career up to this point – in both the NCAA and AHL – before receiving the opportunity to back up Marc-Andre Fleury in the NHL.
But he’s done it by being the first one on the ice for every skate – usually at least 15 minutes before any of his teammates join him – to work diligently with goalie coach Mike Bales before the session begins. And when it does, he doesn’t treat it like a practice – he approaches it like a game.
“I think it’s just to stay sharp, making sure you focus on good habits,” Zatkoff said. “I think sometimes in practice, it may become repetitive and you may not have that attention to detail as much. So that’s something important for me especially, not seeing a ton of game action, making sure I treat every practice like a game.”
Zatkoff was in net for the first meeting of the season between the Penguins and the Islanders back on Oct. 25. In that game, the Pens faltered in the last half of the third period and had a number of defensive zone breakdowns the Islanders capitalized on. New York tied the game with just under six minutes left and scored the game-winner with just under two remaining to defeat Pittsburgh 4-3.
Needless to say, his teammates want to make sure they don't have a repeat performance of that tonight.
“It wasn’t a good feeling letting him down like that, especially at home,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
They felt like they let him down in the game he played before that, too – a 6-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Oct. 11, his first NHL start. But they are impressed with the way he has worked to rebound from a couple of tough outings to get a shutout in his third, and know they'll be able to count on him tonight.
“For a young guy coming in and having a rough first one where we didn’t really play that well, he’s really rebounded and he’s been a great teammate even when he’s been on the bench,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “He’s been working hard out there trying to adapt to the NHL game, and we have a lot of confidence in Zatkoff tonight.”--Michelle Crechiolo
--Drew Hancherick & Sam Kasan
Head coach Dan Bylsma shifted Paul Martin to the top power-play unit during Friday’s morning skate. Martin skated as the only defenseman on the top unit along with forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal.
“I think with the five guys we have out there, especially with four forwards, you realize you have to be back in most situations,” Martin said. “You just try to distribute the puck and if something happens, you are ready to get back. Whoever is in, whether it is me or (Letang) or the both of us, we have all worked on the power play enough to realize where we should be and what we should do.”
The Penguins power-play opportunities Friday night will come against the league’s worst penalty-killing unit this season, with the Isles allowing 19 goals in 76 penalty-killing (71.6%) opportunities.
Kunitz said the Penguins do look at what other teams have done to exploit the Isles weaknesses in man-advantage situations, but first and foremost the focus is on putting themselves in good positions to score.
“We focus on areas we want to be on the ice and at the net, shooting pucks but also carrying pucks through the neutral zone and entries and things like that,” Kunitz said. “We have to worry about what we are doing. We do scout them and see what we can exploit and change. But, first off we have to put pucks there, put bodies there and try to capitalize on those two-on-one advantages.”
The Pittsburgh power play, currently scoring in about one out every five opportunities (20.5%, 12th overall) converted on one of three opportunities Wednesday night in Washington after failing to score in the previous two games on seven chances.
Martin said as long as the Penguins can get continue getting pucks to their playmakers, the power play will continue to thrive.
“I think it comes down to where (Crosby) and (Malkin) feel comfortable and where they get in the right spots and then we fill in. What works for us is when we get to a spot and we get shots to the net. Get some shots to the net and it opens up other lanes and that is when Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Kunitz can make plays and score some goals.”
Coach Dan Bylsma said following morning skate that Jeff Zatkoff would make his fourth start of the season in goal.
The rest of the lineup will be a game-time decision.
Look at that smile
Kunitz displaying some puck tricks
Fleury getting loose
The Letang effect
Dupuis with the casual hanging chin strap
Zatkoff eyes the puck as it goes into his glove
Bennett talks with coach Bylsma
--Dave Uhrmacher & Sam Kasan
MORNING SKATE INFO
All the Pens healthy players are on the ice for the team's morning skate. The team used the following work flow...
1st PP unit: Malkin, Martin up top. Neal, Crosby & Kunitz down low.
2nd PP unit: Niskanen, Letang up top. Jokinen, Sutter & Bennett down low.
THIS IS OUR HOUSE
Pens fans proved once again why they are the best in the NHL, invading the nation's capital to witness Pittsburgh's 4-0 dominance of the Metro Division rival Capitals.
(Stick tap: @v_verduzco)
50/50 FOR KENNY
Tragedy struck last weekend when 20-year-old hockey player Kevin Kenny of the Three Rivers Vengeance suffered a severe spinal injury. Kenny, captain of the Quaker Valley High School team that won the Penguins Cup and state championship in 2011-12, crashed into the boards and had no feeling from his waist down.
In an effort to assist Kevin and his parents, the money collected from tonight's 50/50 raffle will be used to pay for Kenny's medical expenses, which will be staggering. If you're attending the game, please pick up a 50/50 raffle ticket to help the Kenny family.
If you aren't attending the game and want to help, or if you want to hear more about Kenny's story, click here.
For a preview of tonight's matchup click here. If you're attending the game, click here for the fan guide. If you want an in-depth look at the Isles watch the video below.
START ME UP
Good morning hockey fans! Tonight the Pens host Metro Division rival NY Islanders for the second time this season. Here are some quick notes to get you ready for the contest...
- The Penguins host the NY Islanders (TV: ROOT SPORTS; Radio: 105.9 the X) at CONSOL Energy Center.
- A win tonight would give the Penguins three-game home and overall winning streaks.
- Tonight the Penguins will be looking to avenge a 4-3 loss to the Islanders on Oct. 25 at CONSOL Energy Center. In that game the Penguins held leads of 2-1 and 3-2 before allowing two goals late in the third period.
- The Penguins haven’t lost two home games in regulation to the Islanders since going 1-2 at Mellon Arena in 2002-03.
- Pittsburgh is 16-5-1 in its last 22 overall meetings against the Islanders.
- The Penguins are 15-3 in their last 18 home games against the Islanders.
- Tonight the Penguins begin their fifth set of back-to-back games. Thus far they are 4-4 in back-to-backs –posting matching 2-2 records on both nights.
Stick tap (Pens PR)
Today's music selection is brought to you by: @smithwhitney, who chose Bastille's "Pompeii."