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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Islanders

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (6-3-0) vs. ISLANDERS (4-3-1)
WHEN: February 5, 2013 - 7:00 pm  |  WHERE: Nassau Coliseum
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Penguins had a rough game in their first meeting of the season with the New York Islanders, falling 4-1 to their Atlantic Division opponent on Jan. 29. Pittsburgh responded by winning three straight games against the New York Rangers, New Jersey and Washington and are looking to continue that momentum (and exact some revenge) in a rematch with the Islanders just one week later.

The Islanders have been spectacular on special teams. Entering their last game, a Sunday matinee against the Devils, the Islanders were ranked first in the league in both power play and penalty kill. They’ve since dropped a few spots after going 0-for-7 with the man-advantage against New Jersey in a 3-0 loss, but still rank among the league’s best in both categories. The Penguins saw firsthand how dangerous the Islanders’ power play can be, as they converted both their chances last week in Pittsburgh. Forwards John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Brad Boyes and defenseman Mark Streit make up a formidable first unit that moves the puck well and makes the right decisions with it.

The Islanders’ penalty killers have allowed their opponents just two power-play goals on 20 opportunities. Forwards Michael Grabner – who had a shorthanded breakaway attempt against the Devils – and Nielsen continue to be strong on the first unit and pose problems for the other team with their speed and skill. Teams always say that their goaltender has to be their best penalty killer, and Evgeni Nabokov has been just that for the Islanders. Overall, he’s been excellent in net for the Islanders with a 4-2-1 record while starting seven of eight games. Nabokov, who has a 10-2 career record against Pittsburgh, is likely to start against the Penguins on Tuesday, but Islanders head coach Jack Capuano did say that he would like backup Rick DiPietro to get a game in at some point in the near future.

Aside from their potent power play, the Islanders’ speed posed problems for the Penguins in their last meeting. They have a talented group of forwards that includes Tavares, Moulson and Kyle Okposo on the first line, Grabner, Nielsen and Boyes on the second line and David Ullstrom, Keith Aucoin and Casey Cizikas on the third line. They forecheck aggressively, create time and space for themselves and have breakaway speed, which resulted in a pair of even-strength goals against Pittsburgh.

Their defense was also strong matching up against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s lines, led by their top pairing of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic. Their blue line should be getting even stronger this week with the return of skilled defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who is a possibility to play on Thursday against the Rangers or Saturday versus the Sabres. He didn’t report for training camp after playing in the Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout, citing “personal medical reasons within his immediate family.”


Now in his sixth NHL season, Nielsen has quietly developed into one of the NHL’s strongest two-way centers. He’s utilized in all situations, including the Islanders’ first power-play and top penalty killing units, and gets the toughest defensive assignments. Nielsen is also a gifted playmaker that’s tied for the team lead with seven assists. His value to this Islanders team is priceless. And while Nielsen’s game isn’t necessarily measured in points, he did score 17 times last season. And right now, he’s still looking for his first goal of the season. Nielsen got robbed in the last meeting between the Penguins and the Islanders when he got the puck wide open on the back door and Tomas Vokoun made a gorgeous save to thwart his scoring attempt. Look for Nielsen to get more chances on Tuesday night and perhaps end his scoreless drought.

After scoring just once in his first seven games, Kunitz has exploded offensively for the Penguins with five goals and seven points in his last two contests – including a hat trick in a 6-3 win over Washington on Sunday. And he’s done all that while playing with the flu! As Kunitz gets over his illness and back to full health, expect the veteran winger to keep producing and being a factor around the net on the power play. As a whole, his line with Sidney Crosby (who’s on a four-game point streak with a goal and seven assists) and Pascal Dupuis looks especially strong.

  • The Penguins are hoping to enact some revenge on the Islanders, who enter the game having won each of the last three meetings between the teams by a combined 14-7 margin. This season, the Islanders are the lone Atlantic Division team the Penguins have not beaten. For the season, the Penguins are 4-1 against divisional opponents. Since Jan. 19 of last season, the Penguins have gone 12-5-1 in 18 divisional games. The Islanders are the lone team the Penguins have not defeated (0-3) during that stretch.
  • The Islanders’ current three-game overall win streak against the Penguins dating back to last season is the team’s longest since also winning three straight games between Feb. 19-Nov. 3, 2007.
  • Tuesday the Islanders are attempting to win consecutive home games against the Penguins for the first time since amassing three straight home wins between Nov. 24, 2006 and Nov. 3, 2007.
  • Pittsburgh has won the season series between the two teams in each of the last five years and five of the previous six years. The last time the Penguins dropped a season series to the Islanders was 2003-04 (1-3-2).
  • Chris Kunitz made some history on Sunday against Washington when he became the first Penguins player to score four goals in a single game since Jaromir Jagr did so on Oct. 14, 2000 against the NY Rangers at Mellon Arena. Kunitz, whose hat trick was the third of his career and second with Pittsburgh, became the first Penguins player to score four goals on the road since Mario Lemieux did so against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 26, 1997.
  • Kunitz’s four-goal performance was his first multiple-goal game since scoring twice against the Edmonton Oilers on March 13, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center almost two years ago. Last season, Kunitz established a career high with 26 goals despite having zero multi- goal games.

D Matt Niskanen, lower body (3)

F Josh Bailey, knee (off-season) - 7 games missed (2-4 weeks) - 0 man games (suspended)
F Jesse Joensuu, sports hernia (off-season) - 7 games missed (5-7 weeks as of 1/29) - 0 man games (suspended)

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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