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For Islanders, it's the February of the Penguins

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders skates

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders skates against Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period at Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 6, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Islanders faced the Penguins on Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum.

Again.

It was one of six games between the teams in February, a stretch that started with the Islanders beating the Penguins, 4-3, on Saturday night at the Coliseum.

The teams will meet eight times in this 56-game NHL season in which teams face only divisional rivals. One of the resulting unique aspects of this shortened schedule forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the desire to limit travel is multiple games against one opponent, either consecutively or within a short time frame.

Playing the same opponent time after time requires a different mindset.

"I don’t really know how to describe it," top-line center Mathew Barzal said. "It can be frustrating playing a team over and over again, six times in a row. You’ve got to think of it just as a little playoff series-like. Going back to the playoffs last year, thinking about the seven-game series we had against Philly or the six-game series against Tampa. That’s the mindset you’ve got to have. Just take every game in stride and not think about the fact that you have to play them six times."

Anders Lee understands why his linemate would describe it as "frustrating."

"I think you start to figure each other out," Lee said. "You have to make adjustments, make changes. So it can be frustrating if they are shutting down some thing you like to do during the game. That’s where you’ve got to change things up and find different ways to be effective.

"I think when you play a team six times, sometimes it’s nice to have some variety and see somebody else," Lee added. "It’s that challenge of gaining ground on one another and it’s just the way this season is designed and played out."

The Islanders entered Thursday in fourth place in the East Division, one point ahead of the Penguins. Four of the eight teams will qualify for the playoffs.

The Islanders beat the Rangers, 2-0, on Monday night at Madison Square Garden in between these games against the Penguins. They will play back-to-back games in Pittsburgh next Thursday and Saturday and also host back-to-back games against the Penguins on Feb. 27-28.

Coach Barry Trotz believes there are some benefits to this type of scheduling.

"I think you take the playoff approach," he said. "The good thing is the prep to play gets shortened, getting familiar with a team and their tendencies. The things, as coaches, you’re talking about, the players are seeing firsthand almost every second day because you play them so much. It sort of takes on a little bit of a playoff preparation.

"We’ll get really familiar with them and they’re a good team."

The Penguins certainly don’t have the depth or the goaltending they did when they won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, and their top players are aging. Sidney Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang are 33. Evgeni Malkin is 34.

But those top three still are very dangerous. Malkin tied Saturday’s game at 2 with 15.8 seconds left in the second period and Crosby was, in Trotz’s words, "the best player on ice for either team."

"I think we learned they’re a good team off the rush," defenseman Noah Dobson said. "They have some guys that can really make plays. We have to make sure we get the pucks in deep and not allow them to fuel their transition. They have some world-class guys who can make plays and take advantage of that."

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