What to Watch For: Pens vs. Islanders
Wednesday, 03.28.2012 / 6:00 PM ET / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: March 29, 2012 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: Nassau Coliseum
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM
The New York Islanders staved off elimination from the playoffs for a fifth straight season with their 5-3 win over the Penguins on Tuesday. The Islanders will try to stay afloat for another few days when they host Pittsburgh in Long Island for a rematch on Thursday night. New York currently ranks third-to-last in the Eastern Conference standings, with the two teams below it (Toronto and Montreal) already officially done. A loss on Thursday would mean the Islanders are, too.
But though their outlook is bleak, the Islanders aren’t going down without a fight. They needed just one point against the Panthers on Sunday to stay mathematically alive, and New York rallied twice from deficits to claw out a shootout win. And on Tuesday, the Islanders earned their fourth win in 10 games by scoring three goals in just over a five-minute span to break a 2-2 tie and defeat the Penguins.
The one constant through the Islanders’ struggles has been the play of their top line. Matt Moulson, John Tavares and PA Parenteau were paired together at the start of last season and have been shouldering New York’s offense ever since. The trio currently ranks 1-2-3 in team scoring, with Tavares’ 75 points (31G-44A) leading the way. Parenteau ranks seventh in the NHL with 49 assists, while Moulson is having a career year with his third straight 30-goal season.
But while the Moulson-Tavares-Parenteau trio has been solid all season for New York, on Tuesday it was the team’s second line that shined. Center Frans Nielsen led the way with two goals and an assist. Nielsen has carved a reputation throughout the league as one of the NHL’s most underrated players, as the silky smooth center is an asset in both ends of the ice.
Nielsen is usually tasked with shutting down the opposing teams’ top players, but he is a crafty playmaker that makes the players around him better. He also possesses lots of creativity, is their shootout specialist and is an asset on special teams. Josh Bailey also had a three-point effort with a trio of helpers and Kyle Okposo had a goal and an assist. Both players were top-10 draft picks their respective years and are developing young talents.
Their goaltending situation has been all over the place this season, with five different netminders seeing time between the pipes. While it steadied for a while, it’s been shaken up again as Evgeni Nabokov left Tuesday’s game with a lower-body injury and is listed as day-to-day. Al Montoya, who’s appeared in 25 games this season for the Islanders and has a 7-7-5 record, replaced him between the pipes.
Montoya will likely start Thursday, and the Islanders recalled Kevin Poulin from their American Hockey League affiliate on an emergency basis Wednesday to back him up if need be. The Islanders announced Thursday morning that they had agreed to terms on an NHL contract with goaltender John Grahame for the remainder of the 2011-12 season, pending a physical.
Grahame, 36, has played in 224 career NHL games with the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes during his 13-year professional career. Last season, he played in the AHL for the Lake Erie Monsters.
ISLANDERS: FRANS NIELSEN
Nielsen had a big night for the Islanders Tuesday, scoring twice and adding an assist to power New York past the Penguins. He now has eight points (4G-4A) in his last five outings. Nielsen may be a relative unknown to fans, but has established a reputation around the league as being one of – if not the – most underrated players in the NHL. Quite simply, he can do it all. First and foremost, he’s defensively responsible and is usually tasked with shutting down the opposing teams’ best players. But Nielsen is also a smooth operator that possesses a lot of creativity and playmaking ability, and thrives in the shootout (7-for-11 this season, 23-for-38 in his career). He’s also an asset on special teams, averaging more than two minutes a game on both the power play and penalty kill. He’s an all-around threat the Penguins will need to do a better job of shutting down Thursday.
PENGUINS: JAMES NEAL
The Penguins fired a season-high 54 shots on goal Tuesday against the Islanders, and Neal had 12 of them. TWELVE! That’s a few games’ worth of shots for most players. Neal converted two of those for a pair of goals, the latter being his 16th power-play marker of the year – tying him with Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell for the league lead. Over his last nine games, Neal has tallied seven goals, nine assists and 16 points. He has finished with multiple points in five of the nine games.
For the Islanders, Josh Bailey is on a five-game point streak (1G-6A). Kyle Okposo is on a three-game goal-scoring streak. Frans Nielsen has eight points (4G-4A) in his last five games. John Tavares has 12 points (5G-7A) in his last nine games. Mark Streit has eight points (1G-7A) in his last eight games. Matt Moulson has 14 points (9G-5A) in his last 15 games.
Despite New York’s 5-3 victory in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, the Penguins have already clinched the season series for the fifth straight season. During that run the Penguins have gone 23-6-2.
Pittsburgh has gone 9-3-2 in its last 14 visits to Nassau Coliseum – including a perfect 2-0 mark this season. Pascal Dupuis has scored both of Pittsburgh’s game-winning goals in its two wins at Nassau Coliseum this year.
The Penguins have gone 10-2-1 thus far in the month of March. They have outscored their opponents in regulation/overtime by a 53-34 margin in those 13 games. Pittsburgh has scored at least three goals in 10 of the 13 games; the Penguins have had five or more goals in seven of 13 contests.
Sidney Crosby sits three points shy of becoming just the sixth player in franchise history to reach 600 or more points. If Crosby is able to reach that milestone Thursday against the Islanders, he will become the sixth-fastest player to reach that mark in NHL history at 429 games played, tying Eric Lindros.
When Crosby (24 years, 235 days as of today) does reach 600 points, he will become the seventh-youngest player in NHL history to reach that mark. He will become the youngest player to 600 points since Pierre Turgeon (24 years, 177 days) did so with the New York Islanders back in 1994. –SOURCE: Elias Sports Bureau
Evgeni Malkin is red hot right now. The NHL’s leading scorer with 99 points (46G-53A), Malkin has notched at least one point in eight of his last nine games, during which he has collected eight goals and 18 points for an average of two points per game. Malkin has had two-plus points in six of the nine games.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is on the verge of a major personal milestone. With his next victory, Fleury will equal Tom Barrasso’s franchise record of 226 career wins. On March 25, Fleury earned his career-best 41st win of the season – one more than his previous best of 40 wins in 2006-07. That leaves Fleury two wins shy of equaling Barrasso’s single-season record of 43, which he established in 1992-93.
Fleury, whose 41 wins tie him with Nashville’s Pekka Rinne for the league lead, is vying to become just the third netminder in team history to lead the league in wins (Barrasso, ’92-93; Ken Wregget, 1994-95, 25 wins).
Kris Letang did not skate Wednesday and is still day-to-day with a lower-body injury. The defenseman will not make the trip to Long Island and Buffalo with the team.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen, who has missed the last three games with an upper body injury, is still skating on his own and will continue to do so during these two road games.
Joe Vitale, who has missed the last five games with an upper body injury, was back in full practice Wednesday. He will be on the trip with the team but is not yet ready to return to game action.
Goalie Brent Johnson, who has been cleared for full practice and participated in his first skate with the team on March 23, is also on the trip with the team. Bylsma said when Johnson is healthy, he will be the backup goalie to Marc-Andre Fleury.
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (17)
D Kris Letang, lower body (1)
D Ben Lovejoy, knee (1)
D Matt Niskanen, upper-body (3)
F Joe Vitale, upper-body (6)
G Rick DiPietro, sports hernia/knee swelling (40)
G Evgeni Nabokov, lower-body (0)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo