Penguins shouldn't discount Islanders
Jarkko Ruutu catches a puck as he skates against the Devils Saturday. Ruutu scored the Penguins' first goal in their 7-1 victory.
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UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders had a six-game losing streak until a few days ago.
Their franchise goalie is out for the season.
Their chances of qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs are the stuff of mythology, not mathematics.
All of which means there is absolutely no reason for the Penguins to take this game, or the Islanders, seriously when the teams meet at 7:08 tonight at Nassau Coliseum.
Except for one thing: If they look past this game -- and lose it -- the Penguins will have squandered two points that could have a profound impact on where they are seeded for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It could determine whether they get home-ice advantage, and for how many rounds. And ultimately, it could influence whether their trip to the postseason is measured in days, instead of weeks or months.
Other than that, they really don't have much at stake in Game No. 76 of 82.
"That game against the Islanders is bigger than [the Penguins' 7-1 victory over New Jersey Saturday] was," defenseman Ryan Whitney said.
Even though this will be the seventh time the Penguins take on the Islanders in 2007-08 -- the teams will close out the season series Thursday at Mellon Arena -- they might not recognize some of the players in New York sweaters.
The Islanders entered their game in Philadelphia last night with 11 players on the injured list, and the majority will miss the rest of the season. That group is headlined by all-star goalie Rick DiPietro, the cornerstone of their franchise, who is recovering from hip surgery.
But even when forced to rely on replacement goaltenders and a lineup patched together with minor-leaguers, New York's willingness to compete generally isn't an issue. The Islanders might get outplayed, but rarely are they outworked.
"You know that Teddy Nolan[-coached] teams are going to battle to the end," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said.
The Penguins got a graphic, and much-appreciated, reminder of that last Friday, when the Islanders -- losers of six in a row, by a combined score of 26-9 -- went into New Jersey and left with a 3-1 victory that made it possible for the Penguins to claim first place in the Atlantic Division the next night.
"I don't think there's any danger [of looking past New York]," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "We saw that they did to New Jersey. That should be pretty fresh and clear in our heads."
Still, the Penguins have to be aware of the danger of a letdown, since this game is sandwiched between a pair of showdowns with the Devils, who the Penguins will visit tomorrow night.
The key to avoiding that is to recognize, tiebreaker implications aside, the two points at stake tonight are worth every bit as much as the two they earned Saturday, or the two they'll go after tomorrow in Newark, N.J.
"All the games are very important for us right now," defenseman Kris Letang said. "It's so close. You can't take a night off. You have to come hard and get ready. We need to do that against the Islanders to get ready for the game against New Jersey."
Most of the issues surrounding the Islanders these days concern off-ice matters, like where they will end up in the draft lottery and whether Nolan will have his contract extended before its final season kicks in.
At least some of them figure to be motivated by the opportunity to be spoilers, to have a say in how the Atlantic race plays out, even if they're not part of it.
Guys who have been with the Penguins for a while, such as Orpik and Ryan Malone, have extensive first-hand knowledge of such things.
"You have a loose group of guys, guys who get called up and are trying to show their GM what they have, and other GMs," Orpik said. "You have to expect those young guys to play hard."
The Penguins have to expect nothing less of themselves. They have come too far, fought too hard, overcome too much to let the opportunity they've earned slip away.
"There are seven games left," Whitney said. "We want to go 7-0. Each game gets bigger as it goes along, and the first playoff game will be even bigger.
"For us to win [tonight] and then have a great feeling going into Tuesday night would be huge, but we're not even thinking about [the Devils] right now. We've got the Islanders, and that's our goal."
First Published March 24, 2008 12:00 am