As Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton came off the ice after practice and started removing his hockey equipment at his stall, the media started to hover around the former Islander.
Eaton saw the crowd gathering and joked with a smile that he didn’t have any inside information on the team he had played the previous two seasons with, who the Penguins will meet in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But all banter aside, the Penguins have plenty of intel on the Islanders – an opponent they are very familiar with. Both teams played in the Atlantic Division, meaning they met six times a season before this one was shortened because of the lockout (and they ended up playing each other five times this year anyway).
“They know how we play and we know how they play,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “That can mean a couple different things. That can mean that the teams are going to try and shut each other down or teams are going to try to exploit certain areas and try to get offense. Probably some of both. It’ll be a good matchup for us. They’re a tough opponent. They’ve got a lot of talent over there. We’ve got some work ahead of us.”
The Penguins won four of those games, but lost the first one – a 4-1 defeat on Jan. 29. And in that meeting, the Islanders came out and established their team game – frustrating the Penguins and not allowing them to get to theirs. Linemates John Tavares and Matt Moulson each scored (both on the power play), Michael Grabner used his blinding speed to capitalize on a misplayed puck on the blue line and score on a breakaway and rookie Casey Cizikas won a battle on the forecheck and was rewarded with a goal.
The Islanders have showed that when they are at their best, they are a fast, skilled team – with that speed throughout their lineup – who can move the puck well and transition quickly from defense to offense. But the Penguins have showed they can counter that with solid team defense across all 200 feet of the ice, holding the Islanders to just six goals in those four series wins. That’s what they plan to bring starting with Game 1.
“We have to be aware,” Eaton said. “We’ve talked about defensive positioning, not only in the defensive zone, but it starts when we have the puck in our offensive zone. They’re a team that likes to create off the rush, their defense like to join, so we always need to have guys back and just be aware all over the ice.”
“All their forwards, their whole group, is young, talented and they play with a lot of speed and a lot of pace,” Niskanen added. “They’re not afraid to go for a lot of offense. A good test for everybody. Kind of the common theme for us all year has been better team defense, so that’s going to be at a premium for us. A good challenge and we’ve got to be ready to go right from the start from Game 1.”
That youth is a big part of the Islanders’ identity. Their biggest star, Tavares, is just 22 years old. But as Eaton said, many of them have been in this league for a long time – Tavares is already in his fourth full season – and he expects them to be ready for the postseason.
“Playoffs definitely is a step above the regular season as far everything – speed, physicality, intensity, all that,” he said. “But it’s something where they’re all professionals and they’ve played in the NHL a long time. We expect them to adjust pretty quickly. By no means a team that we’re going to take lightly. We’re going to be prepared.
The Islanders have been working for this for a long time, and now that they’re here, the Penguins aren’t expecting their divisional rival to let them walk (or skate) all over them.
“They’ve been just dying to get in the playoffs for a few years now,” Niskanen said. “And they’ve got some young talented players that have been working their butt off to get there and now they’re there, so they’re not just going to come in and be wide-eyed. They’re going to go after it. So we’ve got to be ready for that.”