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Islanders look to build off their fast start

The Islanders' Anders Lee celebrates after Tom Kuhnhackl

The Islanders' Anders Lee celebrates after Tom Kuhnhackl scored against Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith during a game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Credit: AP/Don Wright

The Islanders are four games removed from Jordan Eberle’s must-win edict against the Panthers, which turned out to be an overtime loss. Eberle’s declaration kicked in after that as the Islanders swept three road games.

Now, they are back home against the Penguins Thursday at Barclays Center (where the Islanders will debut their blue and orange alternate jersey) and a victory over the Penguins, whom they beat Tuesday in Pittsburgh, would put them on top in the Metropolitan Division. The Isles (6-4-1) trail the first-place Penguins (6-2-2) by one point.

It's never too early to be in first place.  

“You don't want to start out behind the 8-ball early and say it took 15 to 20 games to kind of figure out things and then fall short at the end,’’ Brock Nelson said. “It's been a pretty good start for us but we want to continue to build.’’

Eberle said: “It's early in the season but you can't stress how important these games are. Not only for getting your season going, obviously you don't want to put yourself in a position of getting pushed away and left behind by the pack. You play three divisional teams on the road and you get three wins. Perfect.’’

These post-John Tavares Islanders have plenty to prove. When Eberle spoke up, the team had lost three of four. But wins against the Flyers and Hurricanes and then Tuesday's 6-3 win over the Penguins, with Eberle scoring twice, reversed all the bad karma. “I think they had put a touchdown against Calgary,’’ Eberle said of the Penguins’  9-1 victory over the Flames last week on the road.

The Penguins had outscored their opponents 23-6 in a four-game road trip before returning home. Then, except for a first-period rally, they looked disheveled against the Islanders. “A lot of times you go on the road and you have a good road trip you come home and you're a little bit lackadaisical,’’ Eberle said. “We got to be back on the ball [Thursday].’’

Anders Lee said of the Penguins, “Good team over there are they going to be ticked off . . . we're expecting an absolute response and we got to be ready to go.’’  

Barry Trotz hopes to have Cal Clutterbuck (upper body)  in the lineup after missing two games, but goaltender Robin Lehner, who has been a large part of the team’s success, will be sidelined with what the Islanders are calling a “strain.’’  He was forced to leave the Penguins game after two periods.  “He's just day to day right now,’’ Trotz said. Asked if he was concerned, the coach replied, “No, not really. Not a major concern that's for sure.’’

Thomas Greiss will start in net. Christopher Gibson was called up from Bridgeport and practiced Wednesday. Tom Kuhnhackl, who had just scored a goal against his former Penguins team, was loaned to the AHL club.

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