Penguins and Isles: The Rivalry Deepens by @ChicksDigHockey - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Penguins and Isles: The Rivalry Deepens by @ChicksDigHockey

When deciding which Pens game to go to, I used to look ahead to see which games I felt the Penguins had the best chance of winning (Don't judge me). I have to admit, I checked the dates they were playing the Islanders at home first. With an all-time record of 70-46-14 against the Isles at home, it was usually a good bet.
That may not be true in the 2014-15 season

Garth Snow seems to be a man with a mission for the Isles’ last season at the Coliseum. That mission seems to be to break the cycle of hockey poverty before moving to Brooklyn. 

It all began back in May with the signing of Jaroslav Halak. Snow was so desperate to improve his dismal goalie situation that he didn’t even wait for free agency to upgrade. He went out and acquired Jaroslav Halak's rights two months before the free agency period began, and had Halak's signiture on a new 4-year deal three weeks later.

That the Isles haven’t been contenders in recent years has largely been blamed on inconsistent goaltending. If Halak and Chad Johnson, his backup, can provide the consistent goaltending that has eluded the team in recent years and propel them to the postseason, they will not be an easy pass. The Penguins, after all, have been “Halaked” in the playoffs and did not fare well.

When free agency did open, Snow had nabbed forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, signing them each to four-year contracts. The pair previously played together in Toronto from 2008-13. Kulemin spent the first six years of his career with Toronto. The former 30 goal scorer has tallied just 23 goals over the last three seasons (188 games played). 2013-14 was his worst year. Grabovski was limited to 58 games by injuries in 2013-14. He had a strong start to the year and finished with 13 goals and 22 assists (35 points).

The Islanders now look much better up the middle. They have three good centers with Grabovski, John Tavares and Frans Nielsen. Tavares really came into his own in 2013-14. He was averaging better than a point per game when his season ended, with 66 points in 59 games. That season-ending torn MCL and meniscus was sustained in last February's Winter Olympics. It did not require surgery and he was able to recover completely over the summer.

It’s almost certain Kyle Okposo will play on Tavares right wing but with Moulson gone the left wing looks to be up for grabs. Not to worry, however... Tavares should be able to get the most out of anyone who joins him on the top line.  Likewise, Grabovski and Kulemin will likely pair with a winger yet to be named. The Isles have plenty of depth to draw from at forward between some promising young guys (Brock Nelson,  Ryan Strome and Anders Lee) and seasoned veterans (Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck and Michael Grabner). Their top six has better potential than in the past.

The biggest change for the Isles and the biggest challenge when playing them, has become their defensive corps. This past weekend in a deal that rocked the NHL, Snow acquired two impact defensemen trading for Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks and Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins. 

One of the past issues for the Isles were their relatively inexperienced D. Boychuk (321 regular-season, 79 playoff games) and Leddy (258 regular season, 54 playoff games) instantly become the most experienced postseason players on the Islanders roster. Also, both have hoisted the cup, which should strengthen the leadership in the room. 

The Islanders' new defense is a force to be reckoned with. Boycuk can shoot the puck and he’s a physical intimidating presence. Leddy possesses blazing speed. He became a mainstay as the Hawks' fifth defenseman but saw his minutes dwindle in the playoffs the last two years as coach Joel Quenneville appeared to lose faith in him. Snow is banking that Leddy brought his speed with him and left whatever caused the riff with Coach Q back in Chicago.

This season, the Penguins will have to work harder to beat the Isles. Mr. Snow and the Islanders aren’t content with finishing at the bottom of the Metro anymore. Halak is fundamentally sound and can handle a lot of rubber... and now that the blue line is shored up, his wins and goals-against average could put him in line with the league’s best. The resurgence of goaltending on Long Island, coupled with Tavares' realistic potential of tallying 80+ points, results in a hungry Islanders team that may finally have the skills to win.

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