The Penguins and New York Islanders are separated by 19 points -- and eight spots -- in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Penguins would like to claim home-ice advantage for four rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs; the Islanders simply are hoping for the opportunity to compete in one.
But despite all that, and, even though the Penguins have won three in a row against the Islanders, they aren't likely to take New York lightly when the teams meet at 1:08 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center.
For, while the Islanders haven't taken many points from the Penguins this season, they have made a decidedly positive impression on them.
Friday, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma detailed how the Islanders have outplayed the Penguins at numerous times this season, and described them as "a skilled team, a desperate team and a team that's maybe overlooked a little bit, but shouldn't be."
His players have put forth similar glowing assessments of New York.
"They're such a fast team," center Brandon Sutter said. "They are, in our eyes, probably one of the most underrated teams in the league.
"They have a lot of talent and they're fast. Their whole team can skate, so that makes it a challenge."
Fleury jumps right in
Marc-Andre Fleury, who sat out the Penguins' 4-0 victory Thursday night against Winnipeg because of an unspecified injury, participated in practice Friday at Southpointe and was pronounced ready to rejoin the lineup today.
Actually, Fleury gave compelling evidence his health wasn't an issue before the workout, when he sprinted toward a 4-foot-high crowd-control barrier outside the team's dressing room and hurdled it.
No one from the team's medical staff or management witnessed that sequence, which likely is just as well because the thought of Fleury catching his foot on the top of the barrier and flying head-first into a nearby wall likely would have been more than a little unsettling.
"I love to throw some challenges at myself once in a while," Fleury said, smiling. "I was confident, I guess.
"On the way up, I kind of thought about it, 'What if I fell?' But it was too late."
Assuming he isn't lured away by Canada's Olympic track and field squad, Fleury is expected to back up Tomas Vokoun against the Islanders.
McDonald finds a home
Islanders right winger Colin McDonald is about to take a pay cut. And he's pretty happy about it.
McDonald, who played five games for the Penguins and 68 with their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre in 2011-12, signed with New York in the summer, but it was a two-way deal, which pays a greatly reduced salary when he's in the minors.
That hasn't been an issue -- McDonald has played in 31 NHL games in 2013 -- but he accepted the security of a one-way contract when the Islanders offered it recently.
He's making a pro-rated share of $700,000 this season, but will be paid $600,000 next season and $675,000 in 2014-15. That doesn't mean he ever doubted his ability to contribute at this level, if given the chance.
"It was human nature to just wonder it if would ever happen, but I always believed I was good enough to play at this level," he said." It was just a matter of getting the right opportunity.
"There are lots of guys in the American League who can play at this level. They just never get that real opportunity."
Although he didn't get much of a chance with the Penguins, McDonald said he doesn't regret his time with them and actually views it a plus for his development.
"When I signed there, I knew it would be difficult to crack that lineup," he said. "But my years previous, I hadn't really been on a winning team and I just wanted to experience winning.
"I knew that whether I was in Pittsburgh or Wilkes-Barre, I was going to be part of a winning environment.
"Coming from that organization, I think it looked good for me as a free agent last summer, knowing that I'd spent a year in Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre. I think that's attractive to other teams, because of how well they do. It's a winning organization.
"I couldn't thank them enough for the opportunity I had. It was a really good experience for me."
First Published March 30, 2013 4:00 AM