Team chemistry is important in every sport but none more so than NHL hockey. That’s why it’s so difficult to do pre-season predictions in pro hockey–no matter what a team’s lineup might look like the most fundamental component for success is how it all meshes together. There’s no better poster child for the importance of chemistry in the National Hockey League than the New York Islanders. The expectation was that the Isles would drop like a stone to the bottom of the standings after longtime captain John Tavares left for Toronto via free agency. Not so much. The Islanders’ faithful still despise Tavares for his ‘treason’ but the team has done just fine without him. They put together a 104 point season last year and are now on pace to exceed that performance this year.
Making the Islanders performance all the more improbable is the way they stumbled out of the gate losing 3 of their first four games. They were at 1-3-0 after a 5-2 loss at Carolina on October 11 but they’ve not lost in regulation since and have just one loss of any sort in that stretch–a 4-3 OT loss against Pittsburgh back on November 7. That 14-0-1 stretch has them near the top of the table in the Eastern Conference though they’re still trying to run down the Washington Capitals who enter tonight’s action with a 5 point lead atop both the conference and the Metropolitan Division. That 15 game point streak equals the longest in franchise history.
Given the circumstances, the Pittsburgh Penguins have played fairly well this year. They’ve spent virtually the entire season without one of their superstars as first Evgeni Malkin and now Sidney Crosby have missed time due to injury. Even so, they’ve managed to stay in the competitive mix in the Eastern Conference at 11-7-3 for 25 points. They’re not in great form now with only 5 wins in their past 13 games though they have gone 5-5-3 in that stretch meaning they’re scrapping out at least a point on most nights. They’ve lost only once by more than two goals during that stretch. Pittsburgh has been very consistent in both ends of the ice this year. They’re tied for #9 in team offense with 3.33 goals per game and #4 in team defense allowing just 2.62 goals against per contest. The power play has struggled but they’ve got the second best penalty kill in hockey (89.8%).
This is a quick rematch of a Tuesday night game at Pittsburgh where the Islanders took a tough 5-4 win in overtime. There’s every reason to expect another hard fought encounter here. Matt Murray should be back between the pipes for Pittsburgh while the Islanders will likely send Thomas Greiss and his 1.98 goals against average (#2 in the NHL). Head to head play between the teams has been very competitive. They’ve split two games already this year, both decided in overtime. The Islanders have a narrow 8-6-0 edge over the past three seasons including 4-3-0 on home ice. Ultimately, we have to keep riding the Islanders. They’ve been a veritable license to print money over the past month or so and until they show something of a downturn in form we’ll continue to ride them.