WHEN: March 30, 2013 - 1:00 p.m. | WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
After getting shellacked by the Penguins 6-1 on March 10 at CONSOL Energy Center, the New York Islanders gave a much more spirited performance in the teams’ next matchup – but still dropped a 4-2 decision just over a week ago at Nassau Coliseum. However, since that March 22 game, the Isles have strung together three wins for the first time this season – capped by a 4-3 shootout win over division rival Philadelphia on Thursday.
Expect the Islanders to come into CONSOL with a noticeable sense of desperation in the fifth and final meeting of the season Saturday afternoon. As the Islanders’ season nears April, each game will become that much more crucial while they battle with their in-state rival, the New York Rangers, for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. The Isles are currently in ninth place with 35 points behind the Rangers, who have the same amount of points but a game in hand.
If anything is going to power the Islanders into the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, and a possible victory over the conference leading Penguins, it’s going to be the partnership of forwards John Tavares and Matt Moulson, who continue to climb the NHL’s statistical leader boards. Tavares is second in the NHL in goals (21) – just two behind Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos – and tied for seventh in points (36), while Moulson isn’t far behind tied for ninth place with 35 points (11G-24A).
But Tavares has had a tough time establishing any consistency against Pittsburgh this year, being held to just two points (1G-1A) and a minus-5 rating in the clubs’ four meetings. Moulson has performed better in those matchups, earning four points (1G-3A), but shares Tavares’ minus-5 rating.
If Tavares and Moulson are held in check again, the Islanders might need to look to winger Michael Grabner, who has potted 11 goals this season (tied with Moulson for second on the team). Grabner has tallied two goals against the Pens this season, including one in New York’s 4-1 win over Pittsburgh in their first meeting on Jan. 29.
But while the Isles have a potent offense, their defense might prove to be an Achilles heel down the stretch – particularly in this matchup. New York will put the league’s 28th-ranked defense (3.22 goals-against average) against the NHL’s most efficient offense (3.40 goals per game). In their four contests against Pittsburgh, the Isles have surrendered 3.75 goals per game – which is far too high to compete with a team that has allowed just nine goals in its past 10 games.
The onus may fall upon whoever is in net for New York to hang in with the Pens. If it’s veteran Evgeni Nabokov, who holds a .903 save percentage, 2.80 GAA and 16-10-3 record while starting 29 of 34 games, the Isles could go toe-to-toe with the NHL’s hottest team. But if it’s young backup Kevin Poulin, who carries a .866 save percentage and 3.88 GAA in three appearances this season, the Isles might be forced to press in the offensive end.
Matt Moulson - John Tavares - Brad Boyes
Josh Bailey - Frans Nielsen - Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner - Keith Aucoin - Colin McDonald
Matt Martin - Marty Reasoner - Casey Cizikas
Travis Hamonic - Andrew MacDonald
Thomas Hickey - Lubomir Visnovsky
Mark Streit - Radek Martinek
ISLANDERS: MICHAEL GRABNER
Grabner’s firepower has given the Isles a viable scoring option past their top line. Projected over a full-82-game season, Grabner would be on pace for 30 goals despite spending time on the Injured Reserve list recently, which would be the second-highest mark of his young career. The 25-year-old forward has already proven his ability to take over a game early this season, as his three points (2G-1A) on Jan. 24 propelled the Isles to a 7-4 thumping of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
PENGUINS: EVGENI MALKIN
Heeee’s back. And Penguins fans should expect Malkin to come back with a vengeance. Now that he is 100 percent healthy, look for last year’s MVP to not only attempt to dominate in Saturday’s matchup, but in every contest down the stretch. Malkin made a splash in his return Thursday, scoring a goal in the Pens’ 4-0 drubbing of the Winnipeg Jets. He’s been held scoreless in two games against the Isles this year, but has scored more career points against them (48) than any other team except the Flyers (55).
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was placed on Injured Reserve Wednesday and will be out 7-10 days with a lower-body injury. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury participated in Thursday's morning skate, but was scratched for the game that night versus Winnipeg after leaving the Penguins’ 1-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens after two periods Tuesday at CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins recalled Jeff Zatkoff from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up Tomas Vokoun.
G Marc-Andre Fleury, undisclosed
D Kris Letang, lower body
F Jesse Joensuu, sports hernia
D Brian Strait, fractured ankle
F David Ullstrom, groin
Author: Michelle Crechiolo