Uniondale, NY – The New York Islanders have had their backs to the wall seemingly since the end of February. Each and every game since the Mar. 3 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators has felt like a playoff game, and the Isles – for the most part – have responded in the way their fans hoped they would.
To say that these Islanders have faced high-pressure situations this season would be an understatement.
As has been heard over the loudspeakers at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and throughout the Long Island Twitterverse over the past two months, “We started from the bottom, now we’re here.”
Tonight’s Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins is yet another test of will for the young Isles, but there’s no reason to think they won’t prove their mettle once again.
The NHL’s talking heads started the season by projecting the Islanders to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference; they slowly backpedaled as the Isles reeled off an 11-1-2 stretch from Mar. 24 through Apr. 24; today, those so-called “experts” are eating crow, having been forced to accept that this team is capable of beating the almighty Penguins.
Man, THIS is awkward…
Who doesn’t love to say, “I told you so?” With another Islanders win, Isles Nation gets another chance to say it to the analysts.
The Penguins lead the Islanders 3-2 in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, after winning Game 5 at CONSOL Energy Center in decisive fashion. But now the Isles return home to play in front of the most rabid fans in the league.
Let’s hope the Coliseum can withstand the sound storm that is an Islanders fan base during the playoffs. The ‘Old Barn’ will literally be rocking when the Isles take the ice tonight for the national television broadcast of Game 6.
There will likely be a few lineup changes for the Isles in advance of the game: if second-line center Frans Nielsen is unable to go – he’s been battling a lower body injury since Thursday – there’s speculation that rookie centerman Brock Nelson will get the start between wingers Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo.
Despite Ryan Strome’s undeniable skill, head coach Jack Capuano will probably go with Nelson’s size up front tonight. (Don’t worry, Isles fans: Strome will be the team’s second-line center for years to come, starting this October.)
The defense will also see a change tonight, as Matt Carkner, who sat out Game 5, could replace Thomas Hickey.
Regardless of the lineup changes, the key to beating the Pens will be the Islanders’ ability to win the loose pucks and physical battles. This Isles team is at its best – especially against a highly skilled team like the Penguins, whose players tend to get frustrated easily – when it’s cycling below the goal line and grinding out tough shifts.
Another important aspect of the game tonight will be getting pucks to the net; Pittsburgh goalie Tomas Vokoun wasn’t tested enough in Game 5, which was his first playoff action since 2006. If the Islanders want to win, they’ll need to outshoot the Pens and get second-chance opportunities.
Vokoun isn’t a world-beater, despite his stellar numbers against the Isles this season. His rebound control wasn’t strong last game; look for that to continue tonight as the Isles feed off the crowd’s energy and possibly bang home a few stray pucks around the Pittsburgh crease.
If anything, the pressure is on the Pens tonight. The Isles have essentially been playing postseason hockey for the past two months just to get to this point. By forcing the issue in the offensive zone, New York may be able to force defensive mistakes on the part of Pittsburgh.
Scrappy, blue-collar hockey; nothing wrong with that. If the Islanders play with a chip on their shoulder, like we all know they’re capable of doing, Game 6 will be a dogfight; and I’d say that style favors the Isles.
A win tonight by New York would force a Game 7, where anything can happen. And there’s already a good historical precedent – if you’re an Isles fan – with regards to the Islanders and Penguins in those loser-goes-home playoff games.
(And because I can’t resist: to any Pittsburgh Penguins fans out there who are hate-reading this piece, the 1975 and 1993 New York Islanders teams called; they say what’s up.)
All kidding aside, the Coliseum plays host to what is sure to be the loudest game of the season for the Isles. To date, it’ll also be their most important game.
Isles fans, let’s make sure they can hear us.
12 Bailey – 91 Tavares – 24 Boyes
26 Moulson – 29 Nelson – 21 Okposo
40 Grabner – 10 Aucoin – 13 McDonald
6 Joensuu – 53 Cizikas – 17 Martin
3 Hamonic – 4 Martinek
37 Strait – 11 Visnovsky
2 Streit – 7 Carkner
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