New York Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield checks Pitsburgh Penguins left...

New York Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield checks Pitsburgh Penguins left wing Jake Guentzel into the bench during the third period in Pittsburgh on Feb. 20, 2023.  Credit: AP/Matt Freed

PITTSBURGH — The Islanders played the Penguins five times in their not-ready-for-prime-time expansion season of 1972-73, losing four of the games and tying one. But it set a precedent in the longstanding rivalry.

Entering Thursday, neither team had ever swept the season series.

Yet the Islanders had a chance to do just that as they faced the Penguins for the fourth and final time this season on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena with the teams vying for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots.

“It’s just one of those things,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “They’ve had a good rivalry over the years and there’s been good battles even maybe when some teams were weaker and some teams were stronger. I feel like they’ve always had some pretty good battles. We’ve played each other a lot over the last four, five years with playoff series [in 2019 and 2021]. There’s been a lot of tight games and a lot of good battles.”

“These guys,” Zach Parise said when asked to name some of the Islanders’ biggest rivals. “When you get those playoff series that are fresh in everyone’s minds, that builds that up. Of course, you have your obvious answer of the Rangers. But I think these guys, too, it’s a close second.”

The Islanders’ wins in the first three games of the season series all had a different tenor — and different lineups for the Islanders.

They beat the Penguins, 5-1, at UBS Arena on Dec. 27, scoring three times in the third period and outshooting them 43-20 with a lineup that included the since-traded Anthony Beauvillier and Aatu Raty as well as the now-injured Mathew Barzal, Oliver Wahlstrom and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, plus defenseman Parker Wotherspoon, now a consistent healthy scratch.

The Islanders also won, 5-4, at UBS Arena on Feb. 17 after falling behind 3-1 and 4-2 in the second period as Ilya Sorokin finished with 41 saves. Andy Andreoff was in the Islanders’ lineup and Barzal still was healthy and playing on a top line with Bo Horvat, who had been acquired from the Canucks on Jan. 30.

Barzal and Josh Bailey were injured when the teams met three days later in Pittsburgh and totaled 62 penalty minutes in a chippy match. The Islanders scored three third-period goals for a 4-2 win as Sorokin made 45 saves.

“You chalk it up as an Islanders-Penguins game,” Casey Cizikas said of the feistiness between the teams. “There’s always going to be intense battles, there’s always going to be heated moments. It’s been like that ever since I started playing here. We’ve had a lot of games against each other, a lot of series against each other. Once you do that, you create a — I don’t want to use hatred — but a dislike for each other when it comes to that puck drop. It’s always fun when we play these guys and it’s always going to be a battle.”

But as much as the first three games were different, there always was a common thread through the Islanders’ victories. They played strong defense and limited the opportunities for the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Crosby had one goal and two assists in the first three games and entered Thursday with 41 goals and 90 assists in 81 career matches against the Islanders, the most of any active player against one team. Malkin was held without a point in the first three games.

“We know what makes them go,” Parise said. “It’s the same story it’s always been: Contain 87 and 71. If you can do that, you’ve got a good chance to win.”

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