Cali to Queens Quite the Transition for Penguins
Queens ain’t California. And the Pittsburgh Penguins’ next three games aren’t the same as their most recent swing through Cali, no matter what the conventional cliches about all games being equal say.
After going 2-1 on the West Coast, the Penguins are back in the Metropolitan Division, with their next three games coming Friday on the road against the New York Islanders, Saturday at home against the New Jersey Devils and Monday against the Islanders at home.
“They’re so much fun to play, division games, but they’re still worth the same points,” Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “But these are going to be fun games to play. You’re fighting against these teams that we’re playing right now.
“You look at the standings now and then, especially when you’re in a battle like we are right now. You’re aware of where we’re at and what’s going on.”
Which would be the Penguins clawing to hold on to a wild card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference at the least and move up the Metropolitan ladder if possible.
The Islanders are two points behind the Penguins, out of the playoff picture at the moment, and the Penguins have a pretty whopping four games in hand on the Islanders.
That puts the Penguins in position to stiff-arm the Islanders with two games against them in short order.
That’s not to say that will necessarily be easy. The Islanders are 2-1-2 in their past fives games, or since they made one of the bigger pre-trade deadline moves to acquire top-line forward Bo Horvat from Vancouver.
Horvat has three goals and an assist in those five games with his new club.
In addition, in the teams’ only meeting so far, the Islanders spanked a lethargic Penguins team 5-1 Dec. 27, the first game after the NHL’s Christmas break.
“I think we just kind of want erase that one from memory,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We know how important these points are, but especially against a team that we’re battling with. They’re going to be a hungry group, and we have to be, too.”
The schedule isn’t exactly sitting in the Penguins’ favor, either. They traveled home from San Jose Wednesday following Tuesday’s 3-1 win against the Sharks, were back on the ice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for a quick early-afternoon practice Thursday, then flew to New York.
“It’s a weird 24 hours, but I think our staff is doing a really good job,” Penguins winger Bryan Rust said. “We’re getting everything we need in terms of recovery and getting back onto our time schedule.”
There’s another quick turnaround when the Penguins have a 5:30 start Saturday against the Devils.
The Penguins are 0-1-1 against New Jersey, including a frustrating 2-1 overtime loss Jan. 22 when Pettersson thought he had the overtime winner but had jumped over the boards too soon, leading to a too-many-men penalty instead of a goal. The Devils scored on their ensuing power play.
“It was a tough one to swallow,” Pettersson said. “I was real disappointed with how it turned out, put the team in a bad spot. I’ve moved by it now.”
Even Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, nearly a poster child for the next-game-up outlook, admitted that these three divisional games with heavy standings and playoff implications have a different flavor from, say, three games in California.
“By nature of competing against opponents in your own division, to a certain extent they take on a four-point consequence if you want to look at it that way,” Sullivan said. “There are points on the line every night regardless of who you play, but obviously when you play inside your division and your conference, there are four-point implications.
“So by nature of that, it’s a little bit different circumstance. There’s certainly a heightened meaning to those types of games.”
The only players missing from practice were injury-related. While defenseman Jan Rutta practiced and is eligible to come off LTIR, he did not skate in the top three pairings.
Out were goaltender Tristan Jarry, forward Ryan Poehling and defenseman Mark Friedman, who all have undisclosed injuries. Sullivan offered these updates:
Jarry, who has missed the past seven games and 14 of the past 16, had doctors appointments and is expected to be in New York with the team. He seemed very close to returning earlier this week.
Poehling, who missed Tuesday’s game because of what Sullivan described as a nagging problem, and Friedman, who missed Tuesday’s game, are both still being evaluated. Poehling is day to day.
Sidney Crosby Thursday:
And Marcus Pettersson Thursday: