The undefeated New York Islanders head into Pittsburgh to battle the 2-1 Penguins at the Consol Energy Center on Saturday. The Islanders are coming off their best performance of the season, beating the San Jose Sharks 4-3 in a shootout at home. The Penguins lost their last game to the Dallas Stars on a goal by Tyler Seguin with under 3 seconds left in regulation, and come into the game in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division. Isles captain John Tavares still leads the league in points with 9, and the Islanders have 2 other players in Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson who rank amongst the top 10 in points so far this season.
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Notably missing from the lineup tonight will be Islanders forward Mikhail Grabovski who suffered an upper-body injury in Thursday’s game against the Sharks. The Isles maintain that Grabovski did not suffer a concussion (good news), but is out “indefinitely” and did not travel to Pittsburgh (semi-bad news). The Islanders haven’t made any roster moves as of yet, which likely means that Colin McDonald will suit up for his first game of the season after being a healthy scratch the last four. It is possible that Cal Clutterbuck will go up to Grabovski’s spot on the second line with Nelson and Ryan Strome, and we will probably see the return of the fan-favorite Casey Cizikas–Matt Martin-McDonald line.
Some Isles fans have campaigned for the team to bring up Anders Lee in the wake of Grabo’s injury, but at this point right now no one outside the team knows for sure how long he will be out for so I don’t necessarily think sending someone down is the right move just yet. McDonald has shown he can play well on the line with Cizikas and Martin and the only reason he hasn’t started yet this season was due to the abundance of forwards coming out of camp. This is where the off-season depth moves can pay off for the Isles.
For the Penguins, it’s the usual cast of characters; forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, defenseman Kris Letang and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins did lose defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to free agency, as well as forwards James Neal and Jussi Jokinen. Former Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma and General Manager Ray Shero were fired in June and replaced with new GM Jim Rutherford and new Head Coach Mike Johnston. Don’t expect these off-season moves to slow the Penguins down, but they are definitely vulnerable, as is every team in the division this season.
The Penguins special teams are in a “Jekyll and Hyde” mode early this season, mirroring the special teams of the Isles. The Penguins and Islanders have the #1 and #2 ranked Power-Play units respectively, yet the Isles Penalty-Kill is 29th slightly ahead of the Penguins who are dead last at 30th. In the Isles-Penguins playoff series in 2013 the Isles Penalty-Kill against the Penguins Power-Play was one of the huge differences in that series, so it will be interesting to see how they fare against each other tonight.
Tonight’s game will be entertaining as always between these division foes, but look for Isles Head Coach Jack Capuano to have his guys ready to play another tough game. Going into Pittsburgh and winning is never easy, but I see the Islanders continuing with their suffocating forecheck and solid goaltending to skate out with a victory for the teams first ever 5-0 start.