Pens, Isles meet again 2 months after fight night
If the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders fought things out on the silver screen instead of a sheet of ice, the sequel would have a roman numeral tacked onto the title a la ''Rocky.''
It's been two months since the Atlantic Division rivals staged one of the most penalty- and fight-filled games they or the NHL has ever seen. Much has changed since that Friday night in February when the Islanders had revenge on their minds and took care of getting it in all kinds of ways.
Whether the bad blood still exists when the Penguins return to Long Island on Friday night remains to be seen.
''Sometimes games like this, there is all the hype and it's just another game,'' Islanders tough guy Micheal Haley said Thursday. ''They're in the playoffs, so they'll be worried about that. It's tough to say what could happen. I am sure there will still be emotions but I don't know if it will be like last time.''
The last game featured 65 penalties, 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections, 15 fighting majors and 20 misconducts in the Islanders' 9-3 victory that was never competitive. Records were set for both teams for most combined penalty minutes, and there were few players around to finish the game.
Both sides tried to downplay what will happen once they are back on the ice together, and the teams are going in different directions. New York has only two games remaining in a disappointing season, and Pittsburgh is playing out the string with only a potentially better postseason seeding on the line in the final weekend.
''We are in the playoffs and we are trying to get ready for playoffs. Their season is over,'' Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said. ''It's a different atmosphere in both locker rooms. I don't expect too much to happen.''
That seemed to be a common theme, but no one could be certain there wouldn't be a repeat of the mayhem that played out at Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 11. Any questionable hit or lopsided score or something unforeseen could re-ignite a fuse that is likely still hot.
''We're going to play the game like we always can,'' Penguins forward Jordan Staal said, ''and not really worry about what happened before.''
The fire was first lit nine days before the previous matchup in a game at Pittsburgh. In that one, the Islanders were angry about an unpenalized hit to the head of forward Blake Comeau by Pittsburgh's Max Talbot that caused a concussion. They didn't shy away from showing their displeasure when they had the Penguins in their home arena.
And that's where they will have them again on Friday.
''I already addressed this with our team on two separate occasions. Our sole intent going into that building is to win a hockey game and not be interested in doing any other kind of activity,'' Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. ''We're playing a certain way, we've got a certain group of guys, and we're not going to be focused on being involved in anything other than playing our game and winning a hockey game.''
The Islanders, who are trying to stay out of the Eastern Conference cellar, will be playing in front of just their fourth home sellout of the season - but third straight. This highly anticipated second round with the Penguins will be greeted by rabid fans certainly looking for more eruptions on ice.
''I've come to the conclusion that it's probably in (the Penguins') hands how the game is going to be played out,'' Islanders enforcer Zenon Konopka said Thursday. ''Obviously, two games ago, we were upset with the way our players were being treated. The next game was intense, and some people would say it got out of hand.''
That's an understatement.
In addition to the hit on Comeau back on Feb. 2, Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro also sustained facial fractures and a knee injury when he was struck in a fight by Penguins netminder Brent Johnson.
In the rematch, Matt Martin jumped Talbot at center ice to spark one of many brawls that seemed to break out every few minutes. Haley, called up by the Islanders earlier that day, skated the length of the ice to fight Johnson, as well.
Trevor Gillies was suspended nine games for elbowing Eric Tangradi in the head and punching him several times, leaving the Penguins forward with concussion-like symptoms. Martin was given a four-game ban for his hit on Talbot, and the Islanders were fined $100,000 by the NHL for failing to control their players.
The only supplemental discipline given to the Penguins was an automatic 10-game suspension to Eric Godard for leaving the bench to join a fight in the third.
''The suspensions were probably warranted,'' Martin said. ''The game did get a little bit out of control, but that's hockey sometimes. It's a funny sport. You're able to kind of stick up for each other and fight for each other. There is no other sport you can really do that.
''I'm not going to go against the league here and say we're angels. Some things were kind of taken overboard, and I am the first to admit that, but no one is a bad guy in here.''
The aftermath suggested otherwise, from the harsh penalties dealt out by the NHL to subsequent comments from Hockey Hall of Fame player and Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who referred to the previous meeting as a ''travesty'' and ''sideshow'' in a harshly worded statement.
He also blamed the NHL for failing to ''send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport.''
''The game blew up there a little bit. That's over and done with,'' Gillies said. ''If the bell needs to be answered, we've got the guys to answer it. Besides that, it's just another hockey game. People are going to have their opinions. Reporters are going to say what they want, some owners can say what they want, but it's ultimately about the guys in this locker room.''
The Islanders played some of their best hockey of the season right after fight night. They won four of the next five and felt more closely knit as a club, with each guy willing to stand up for a teammate.
Since then, New York also has noticed that opponents have taken fewer shots against the Islanders' more skilled players such as John Tavares and Josh Bailey.
''We did it for the team and we did it for the New York Islanders,'' Martin said. ''Everyone in this room is bleeding blue and orange, and we're playing hard for each other. That's all it really was.
''We initiated most of the fights. We were unhappy with some things that were going on with the team. We were frustrated at the time. There are always liberties taken, and we just didn't like it. Emotions got the best of us, and it went the way it did. It's done with now.
''We'll see how the game goes.''