UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- John Tavares won't turn 23 until September, but he has been around long enough to dress for 252 NHL games.
And to realize that the way an NHL season begins isn't necessarily how it will end.
He is, then, understandably cautious about reading too much into the 4-3-1 start the New York Islanders had before facing they faced the Penguins Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum.
"There's still a lot of games to be played, a lot to be judged," he said.
"We've had some decent starts over the first four or five games of past seasons, then we have kind of hit a lull."
Enough of a lull, he could have added, that New York has qualified for the playoffs just once in the past seven seasons.
Still, Tavares believes his team has the potential to be a factor in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.
"This year, we're more understanding, more focused, on what we have to do to play more consistent, to be more competitive on a daily basis," he said.
"To compete for the playoffs, you have to be that way, especially with how tough our division is.
"More and more, we're learning about what it takes to win, and what we have to do."
Riding Nabokov in goal
Not all that long ago, Rick DiPietro was the Islanders' franchise goalie.
These days, he barely qualifies as their backup, because New York has been relying so heavily on Evgeni Nabokov.
Nabokov has started eight of the first nine games and, before facing the Penguins, was 4-2-1, with a 2.99 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
Islanders coach Jack Capuano said he had no concerns about Nabokov handling such a workload.
"If you go back in history and look at the amount of games he's played, he's used to that," he said.
"It doesn't surprise me that he's playing real well."
Kunitz prefers to practice
Left winger Chris Kunitz had five goals and two assists in the two games that preceded Tuesday's game against the Islanders.
That would be impressive under any circumstances, but it was particularly noteworthy because Kunitz had been battling a flu-like ailment much of the previous week.
The Penguins did not have game-day skates before either of their weekend games against New Jersey and Washington because both were played in the afternoon, and Kunitz was held out of the game-day skate at Madison Square Garden last Thursday, as well as practices Monday and Friday, because of his illness.
But despite his recent rampage -- and the fact that many players allow superstitions to influence their decision-making -- Kunitz said he did not consider staying off the ice for the optional game-day skate Tuesday.
"You'd want to, but I don't think that's what contributes, most of the time, to being successful on the ice," he said, fighting to suppress a chuckle.
"It's one of those things where, whenever you can go out there, you have to go out and work on your game."
More optional skates
Both coaches made the game-day skate optional, and that's something that figures to happen a lot around the NHL this season.
Not only because some coaches and executives question the value of those skates, but because the compressed schedule rooted in the NHL lockout limits the rest and recovery time available to players.
"They play hard every night," Capuano said.
"We'll continue to go in that direction [of frequent optional skates] and see how it goes."
The Penguins scratched forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi and defenseman Ben Lovejoy. ... The Islanders are a third of the way through a nine-game stretch during which they will not have to leave the New York-New Jersey area to play a game.
First Published February 6, 2013 5:00 AM