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Pittsburgh vs. NY Islanders Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins (35-22-2-72) vs. New York Islanders (23-27-8-54)
Where: Mellon Arena

When:
Wednesday, February 10, 7:30 p.m.
Radio:
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV:
FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428 and DirecTV 659.

Season Series: The Penguins and Islanders meet in the fourth of six meetings between the clubs this season. Pittsburgh has taken two of the first three contests, 4-3 in a shootout on Long Island back on Oct. 3 and 6-4 in Pittsburgh on Jan. 19. New York registered a 3-2 come-from-behind victory at Nassau Coliseum on Nov. 27. Sidney Crosby and Ruslan Fedotenko each tallied a goal and an assist against the Islanders on Oct. 3 while Kris Letang secured the victory with a game-deciding goal in the shootout. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin put on a world-class display in the Penguins’ victory on Jan. 19 as Malkin recorded his second hat trick of the season, with all three goals coming on the power play, while Crosby tied his career high with six points (2G-4A).
 
LOWDOWN ON THE ISLANDERS
New York struggled mightily in 2008-09, finishing last in the overall league standings with a 26-47-9 overall record. Only the Colorado Avalanche scored fewer times than the 201 goals the Islanders netted. New York struggled with injuries between the pipes, as starter Rick DiPietro played in only five games all season, so journeymen Joey MacDonald and Yann Danis were forced to carry more of a load than they could handle. New York had been one of the league’s Cinderella stories through the first half of the season as they hung around the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but a 1-8 stretch has pushed them to 13th place, seven points behind eighth-place Tampa Bay.

Scott Gordon begins his second season behind the bench on Long Island. The former Quebec Nordiques netminder came to the Islanders after five-plus seasons behind the bench for the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League. He won that league’s coach of the year honor in 2007-08 when he led the Bruins to the best record in the AHL at 55-18-7. Gordon served as an assistant to Ron Wilson this past spring on the United State’s entry in the World Championships.
 
NEW FACES
No. 1 overall selections always generate a buzz, and John Tavares has certainly done that for a New York franchise that could use some star-power. Tavares leads all first-year players with 18 goals, while his 33 points are second-best. Head coach Scott Gordon recently put Tavares between straight-line bangers Sean Bergenheim and Blake Comeau in an effort to help break him from a slump which has seen him go five straight games without a point prior to facing Nashville on Tuesday. Tavares was sensational in his final year of junior hockey with 58 goals and 46 assists in the Ontario Hockey League during the 2008-09 campaign split between Oshawa and London.

Center Rob Schremp, claimed off waivers prior to the start of the season from the Edmonton Oilers, continues to play the best hockey of his NHL career as he becomes more and more comfortable at this level. Over his past 19 games, Schremp has picked up 13 points (5G-8A). The former 2004 first-round draft pick of the Oilers spent time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the 2006-07 season when the Penguins and Oilers both supplied players to the American Hockey League team. Schremp is an outstanding puckhandler with an array of shootout moves.

As mentioned, the Islanders were hit hard by a lack of goaltending depth a season ago, so they took drastic measures to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. First, they signed former Oilers’ No. 1 netminder Dwayne Roloson. Roloson nearly backstopped the Oilers into the Western Conference playoff field, finishing with a 28-24-9 record and an impressive .915 save percentage. Later in the summer the team added a name familiar to Penguins fans, Martin Biron. The former Flyer was superb at times for the Flyers in their first-round matchup with the Penguins, including a 3-0 shutout at Mellon Arena in Game 5.
 
FORWARDS
With future stars such as John Tavares, Kyle Okposo (See Player Spotlight below), Josh Bailey and Frans Nielsen ranking among their best players, the Islanders see light at the end of the tunnel in their march back to respectability despite a recent cold stretch. Tavares, Nielsen and Bailey give the Islanders three offensive-minded centers to match wits both now and in the future with the Penguins dynamic trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.

Bailey, 20, will be out of the lineup until following the Olympic break with an upper body injury. He ranks third on the team with 13 goals and had been seeing minutes as a winger on the top line next to Tavares prior to his injury. Bailey came on strong in the second half of last season and has continued where he left off this year. Nielsen is the elder statesman of the bunch at 25. The native of Herning, Denmark looks the part of the consummate second-line center – good playmaker and sound defensively. Nielsen has picked up 26 points (8G-18A) in 52 games, while demonstrating his two-way play with a team-leading plus-12 rating.
 
Former Penguins draft pick Matt Moulson has been one of the top offseason signings with a team-high 21 goals through Tuesday. His 34 points rank second behind Okposo. Moulson has deft hands around the cage and is big enough at 6-foot-1 to offer a net-front presence, particularly on the power play.

As usual the Penguins will have to be aware of Trent Hunter, who continues to make a living around the front of the net. The two-time former 20-goal scorer always plays well against the Penguins. He has picked up four points (2G-2A) in the first three contests. Veteran Doug Weight, who is still looking for his first goal of the season, but has picked up 12 assists in 28 contests, serves as captain for the Islanders. Although his hands and speed aren’t what they once were, Weight is still a creative playmaker who offers veteran wisdom to a young offensive core. Former Penguin Richard Park, an alternate captain for New York, offers speed and tenacity on the forecheck, in addition to being a top-notch penalty killer. Park has 16 points (4G-12A) while playing in all 58 games.
 
DEFENSEMEN
As youthful as the Islanders are up front, they have a veteran group on the back end. Power-play specialist Mark Streit, a marquee free agent addition a season ago from Montreal, led the Islanders in scoring in 2008-09 with 56 points (16G-40A). He scored 10 of his goals and 29 of his points on the power play. One of the league’s better players at getting low, accurate shots from the point, Streit currently leads all New York defenders and ranks fourth on the team with 29 points (7G-22A) in 58 games.

Andy Sutton figures to get a rude welcoming when he steps on the ice at Mellon Arena after a borderline hit-from-behind on Pascal Dupuis towards the end of the game on Jan. 19. Although he is not generally a dirty player, Sutton did receive a two-game suspension for the hit. At 6-foot-6, Sutton can be an imposing force around his own net. He has picked up 11 points (4G-7A) and a team-high 73 penalty minutes in 50 games. One player the Penguins won’t have to worry about is Brendan Witt, who is currently playing with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League after clearing waivers last week.

Jack Hillen and Bruno Gervais are two unheralded performers who have taken on increased minutes with Radek Martinek sidelined the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. Hillen sees an average of 20:36 of ice time per game, second-most among New York defenders behind Streit. On the season, Hillen has picked up 13 points (1G-12A) and has a plus-8 rating in 45 games. Unfortunately for New York, Hillen has been sidelined since Jan. 26 when his jaw was broken by an Alex Ovechkin slap shot. Freddy Meyer might not be having his best season offensively with eight points (1G-7A) in 40 games, but he has stepped up his defensive play with Hillen on the shelf.

Rookie Andrew MacDonald, 23, has shown signs that he could be a top-four defenseman at the NHL level with his play, particularly recently. MacDonald is the only Islander blueliner besides Hillen with a positive rating (plus-4). Over his past nine games MacDonald has played 20 minutes or more in each contest, including a career-high 28:15 against Carolina on Feb. 6.
 
GOALTENDING
The goaltending depth possessed by the Islanders is second to none in the NHL. They have three men capable of being a legitimate No. 1 backstop in Rick DiPietro, Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron. The Islanders have such a problem because DiPietro has finally returned to the ice following several surgeries on both his hip and his knees over the past two years. DiPietro is splitting the starting job with Roloson, and he has posted a 2-5 record, 2.60 goals-against average and .900 save percentage heading into Tuesday.

Although he’s now 40, Roloson proved late last season for the Edmonton Oilers that he is still capable of carrying a team. His 28 wins a year ago are more impressive when you consider he also had to emerge from a three-headed monster in goal at the beginning of last season, splitting time with former Penguin Mathieu Garon and Jeff Deslauriers. Roloson did a great job filling in for DiPietro as the No. 1 guy, and the two figure to split time the remainder of the way unless one gets hot. Roloson has appeared in 36 games and has posted a 19-11-6 record, 2.82 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage through Tuesday.

Biron went unsigned until late July when the Islanders picked him up as veteran insurance. With DiPietro back in the fold the Islanders have relegated Biron to the No. 3 spot. He is currently on a conditioning assignment with Bridgeport of the AHL, where the Islanders are possibly shopping him in advance of the March 3 trading deadline. In 17 appearances this season he is 2-11-2 with a 3.22 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
 
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: KYLE OKPOSO
Although Kyle Okposo has picked up just two assists in three games against the Penguins this season, he has been arguably their best player. On Jan. 19, Okposo used his speed to create two shorthanded breakaways for himself, including one where he was pulled down, resulting in a penalty shot, in a 1:17 span, but Brent Johnson stopped him on all three occasions. Okposo, who leads New York with 181 shots prior to Tuesday, has fired 16 shots against the Penguins, including seven on Jan. 19.

While Okposo probably wants to work on his shooting percentage a bit, his all-around improvement has been huge for New York. Okposo leads the Islanders in both assists (25) and points (37) through Tuesday. Already an alternate captain at 21, the St. Paul, Minn. native leads all Islander forwards in ice time at 20:25 minutes per game. Okposo’s well-rounded game should make a staple of future U.S. Olympic teams.
 
"THEY SAID IT"
"There's nothing you can really do. He's 19 years old -- this shouldn't be surprising. I think there's a false sense that we are further than where we are with our young guys… That's not really fair because they don't have the same age and experience as other guys."

- Islanders head coach Scott Gordon talking to Yahoo! Sports on the recent struggles of 2009 No. 1-overall draft pick John Tavares and some of the Islanders’ other young stars.

 
POINT OF INTEREST
1.38: New York has scored a total of 11 goals over their past eight games prior to hosting Nashville on Tuesday, an average of 1.38 goals per game. Not surprisingly, they have a 1-7 record over that stretch.
  
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Author: Jason Seidling

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