Loaded Penguins a formidable opponent for Isles
There are no mysteries when it comes to the Penguins. The Islanders may not have faced Pittsburgh in the playoffs for two decades, but they are incredibly familiar with the array of Penguins weaponry and know just what they must do to have a chance in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series that begins Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
"Everybody knows what they are, everybody knows what they bring,'' said defenseman Brian Strait, who played three playoff games with the Penguins last season and will be on the opposite side this spring. "Everyone knows who the antagonists are, everyone knows who the best players in the world are. When it comes down to it, it's about what we bring. In the playoffs, it's the habits on and off the ice, putting your best foot forward every day. Whatever happens in the last game, you have to park it and move on to get ready for the next game.''
Sidney Crosby's availability will be determined by doctors Tuesday, but even without Crosby, the Penguins are one of the most loaded teams in the league. And they loaded up even more by acquiring forwards Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow and defenseman Douglas Murray at the trade deadline to join the likes of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Paul Martin and Kris Letang.
Frans Nielsen has embraced the role of shutdown center in the second half of the Isles' regular season, so he would welcome the challenge of going head-to-head with Crosby. But with the Isles on the road to start the series and the Penguins with the last line change, Nielsen might not get his choice of centers to oppose.
"They're a really tough team to match lines with,'' Nielsen said after the Isles practiced at IceWorks in Syosset on Monday. "If it's not Crosby, they've got Malkin on the other line. Whoever ends up going against their top guys has to take pride in playing without the puck, in defending. It's going to be a lot of hard work, but we've been doing that work the last month or so.''
Much like Nielsen, Travis Hamonic has been relishing his role as the defenseman (along with partner Andrew MacDonald) charged with shutting down the likes of Crosby and Malkin. Crosby had his way with Hamonic and the Isles on March 10 in Pittsburgh, a 6-1 Penguins rout, but the Isles dominated the first meeting on Jan. 29, and the other three were all tight in the third period.
"You can go against some of the best players in the world in the regular season, but the playoffs is when it's time to step up and do it on the biggest stage,'' Hamonic said. "Whether we're switching to get the right matchups or whoever I'm out there against, it's a personal challenge for me to try and shut down some of the top players in the league.''
There will be some desire to shut down John Tavares on the Penguins' side, and Brooks Orpik, one of the Penguins' most physical defensemen, would be the natural choice. But Orpik (lower body) missed practice Monday, leaving Murray, a very physical but not-so-mobile defenseman, as the likeliest choice to match against Tavares.
Jack Capuano won't give away any of his strategies, only the mantra that he's been repeating since the Isles began their 11-2-4 run to a playoff berth.
"Nothing's going to change for us,'' Capuano said. "Our guys got to this point for a reason. We're going to prepare the same way and make sure our guys are relaxed and ready to play their game.''