Penguins, Islanders aim to rebound (Dec 07, 2017)

PITTSBURGH — After winning the past two Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins usually find themselves circled on opponents’ calendars. Despite some inconsistency, they lived up to the billing recently.

The telltale speed, the firepower on offense helped them win four of their past five games while scoring 22 goals over that span.

Pittsburgh’s opponent Thursday at PPG Paints Arena, the New York Islanders, doesn’t come with the same reputation, but that isn’t necessarily clear from the numbers.

Going into the Metropolitan Division foes’ first meeting of the season, the Islanders (16-9-2) are a point ahead of the Penguins (15-11-3) and are 8-3-0 in their past 11 games.

“They’re playing extremely well,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said Monday of the Islanders. “They’re a confident group right now. They’re playing a ‘pace’ game. They’ve got a lot of skill.”

That skill starts with center John Tavares, whose 17 goals would lead the Penguins and whose 31 points would fit right in with Pittsburgh’s star trifecta — Phil Kessel (34 points), Sidney Crosby (29 points) and Evgeni Malkin (25 points).

“They’re led by Tavares. He’s having a great year,” Sullivan said. “They’ve had a really strong start to the season.”

Despite recent success, both clubs are coming off losses.

The Islanders had a travel day Wednesday and didn’t practice after a 6-2 loss Tuesday at Tampa Bay, a game that at one point was 2-2. The result left the Islanders frustrated.

“We just weren’t ready to play,” Islanders winger Jordan Eberle told Newsday. “We woke up in the second, but then three quick ones (by the Lightning) and they were all over us. You make one mistake against a team like that and they can capitalize quickly.”

The Penguins are also a team like that, although they ran into a different sort of impediment Tuesday. Pittsburgh hit at least four posts in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers, a game they led by a goal twice and lost when a tiebreaking goal bounced in off of defenseman Kris Letang.

The iron strikes helped take some of the edge off the loss.

“I think there’s an element of chance to it,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes the puck hits the post and goes in for you; sometimes it doesn’t. How do you control that? You’re talking about fractions of an inch.

“What you can draw from it is the fact that we’re getting pucks to the net. We’re getting pucks through. We’re getting opportunities to score.”

So are the Islanders, who have scored 46 goals over their 8-3-0 run.

New York is 1-1-0 to start a four-game road trip.

Pittsburgh — which could be without defenseman Justin Schultz, who left the Tuesday game because of a lower-body injury — will be playing the third game of a season-high five in a row at home.

“The homestand we have now, I think we have to take advantage of it,” Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta said. “We have to start racking up (points). We all know we’re not in the spot we want to be in the standings and we haven’t played the hockey we want to play, but I think we’ve gotten better and better as the season has gone along. We’ve got to keep building on that.”