The Pittsburgh Penguins (7-10-1) host division rival New York Islanders (9-5-0) on Thursday night at the Mellon Arena. The struggling Penguins, who have dropped to last place in the Atlantic Division, have lost 4 straight games and 8 of their last 10. The slide has left many fans and some sports writers questioning the coach’s wisdom in constantly juggling line combinations and poor selection of healthy scratches. In a Pittsburgh Tribune Review article today, columnist Joe Starkey questioned whether benching goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and Colby Armstrong has further contributed to their confidence issues. He suggests that benching low producing veterans Recchi and/or Roberts for a game would make more sense than making scapegoats out of the younger players who need experience and opportunity to play through adversity. I tend to agree with this sentiment. Nothing undermines a team quicker than a coach showing preferential treatment of selected players. The players need consistency of linemates, and consistency of treatment by their coach when players underperform.
The New York Islanders have been playing well of late, having won 6 of 7 before losing 3-2 at Philadelphia on Monday. With some key additions in the off-season, the Islanders appear to be thriving under 2nd year coach Ted Nolan. Perhaps the best off-season acquisition was Mike Comrie who signed as an unrestricted free agent and currently leads the team in scoring with 15 points, 7 coming on the power play. Other key players and point-getters include Miroslav Satan, Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedetenko. Rick Dipietro (8-4) has played okay in goal for the Isles with a 2.49 GAA and 0.904% save percentage.
The Penguins will try to avoid matching their longest losing streak from all of last season by avoiding a 5th consecutive loss. The Penguins have suffered from inconsistent goaltending and lackluster defense, resulting in just 1 win in 7 games so far in November. They have also failed to get balanced scoring from their offensive lines, with 37% of the points scored so far this season coming from just two players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Add in Sergei Gonchar and Petr Sykora, and the 4 players combined account for 57% of the team’s points. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both in the middle of career-high point streaks at 17 and 11 games, respectively. But that hasn’t been enough offense to win games. The Penguins need contributions from other youngsters and veterans alike. Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts each have 2-points in their last 10 games, and Roberts has 10-penalty minutes in his last 3-games.
The Penguins goaltending and defensive corps have had a very rough start. Marc-Andre Fleury, who had 40 wins last season, has gone more than 3-weeks without a win and is 0-4 with a 4.42 goals-against average in his last 5-starts. Coach Therrien has cast a vote of low confidence in Fleury by starting backup netminder Dany Sabourin in 4 of their 7 November outings (3 of which were loses). The Penguins made a move to shore up the defensive ranks by calling up 20-year-old defenseman Kris Letang from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Wednesday. It is hoped that the young defenseman will bring some energy and consistency to bolster the defensive lines. Many had predicted that Letang would make the team cut coming out of training camp, but he ended up being sent down. He played 7 games in his debut with the Penguins last season.
As the team Captain, Sidney Crosby has been looking for a silver lining. “It’s easy to look at the way things have gone the last few games and be critical and be negative, but we probably played our best game in the last few,” said Crosby, ”We deserved to win (against New Jersey), but it didn’t happen.” While their effort against New Jersey on Monday was better, the Penguins will have to find more consistency in their defensive game and more balanced scoring from their offensive lines before they will truly be deserving of a win. Hopefully having a few days off will help as they take on the Isles on Thursday.
Going head-to-head, the Islanders have the slight advantage. The Isles have scored 2.9 goals per game versus the Penguins 2.7, and have given up 2.9 goals per game to the Penguins 3.1. The Islanders special teams have been slightly more effective than the Penguins going 22.2% on the man advantage to the Pens 21.5%. The Isles have an 85.2% effectiveness on the kill to the Penguins 82%.
NHLPens.com Prediction: The Penguins are due for a breakout game and I am predicting that this one will be it. Buoyed by the addition of Letang, the Penguins defense will be more active at blocking shots and clearing the crease. I think the offense will gain momentum off from an improved defensive effort and result in scoring contributions from more than just the usual suspects. I am predicting a 4-1 Penguins win after a slow first period start. Most likely goal scorers include Maxime Talbot, Jordan Staal, Ryan Malone and Sidney Crosby. I think Crosby and Malkin will both extend their point streaks.
Note: The Penguins will induct Paul Coffey into the Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Fame in a pre-game ceremony.