With reigning NHL player of the week and No. 2 November star Evgeni Malkin leading the way, the Pittsburgh Penguins begin their December schedule Tuesday night at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum against the New York Islanders.
The first-place Penguins (18-9-1, 37 points) went 9-5-1 in November, but they carry a three-game winning streak into tonight’s 7 p.m. faceoff. Pittsburgh has collected at least a point in seven of its last eight games (6-1-1), opening up a seven-point lead on second-place Washington for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The Islanders (8-15-4, 20 points) reside at the bottom of the newly-constructed Metro, three points behind seventh-place Columbus. New York came into the season seeking to build upon its return to the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, but a six-game winless streak (0-5-1) has dropped them 11 points behind Toronto for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference.
But the Islanders usually give the Penguins a worthy challenge. That trend includes their two matchups this season, a 4-3 New York win Oct. 25 and a 4-3 Pittsburgh victory Nov. 22, both at Consol Energy Center. Long stretches of both games featured entertaining back-and-forth rushes and risky play all over the ice.
“[The Islanders] play pretty aggressive, take some chances pinching and things like that,” said Penguins captain and league-leading scorer Sidney Crosby after Tuesday’s morning skate. “It’s more the fact that they take chances and we get an odd-man rush and that starts the flow. It’s not something we want to do.”
There’s not much the Penguins can do if the Islanders get themselves out of position; Pittsburgh must attack in those spots and hope to bury the scoring chances that arise. If anything, a team with the Pens’ firepower should be able to make New York pay for its mistakes more than other clubs, but it hasn’t always worked that way.
Still, including last year’s first-round playoff series, the Pens have won eight of their past 12 meetings with the Isles, so maybe perception isn’t reality. Yes, the games between these teams can be wild and out of control, but Pittsburgh comes out on top about as much as one would expect.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen highlighted a way for the Penguins to control the pace when he told the media they should “keep the third forward high.” Doing so would limit the 3-on-2 rushes that fuel New York’s offense and allow the Pens to play the more controlled possession-oriented game they prefer.
Playing responsibly would assist goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who gets his first start against the Islanders since his disastrous Game 4 last spring. Tonight’s contest ends the Pens’ three-game road trip, while also begins a stretch of four games in seven nights.