It absolutely, positively matters a little more when the Pittsburgh Penguins lose to the New York Islanders. To deny it is to deny the fundamental challenges which the Penguins faced, are facing, and will face. To see the New York Islanders is to know the direction in which the Penguins are headed, and a team they must climb over to win another Stanley Cup. The Penguins had a chance to beat New York for the second time in 12 days on Tuesday night but instead gifted New York yet another point in the standings in a 5-4 OT loss at PPG Paints Arena.
Sure, the New York Rangers and other Metro teams matter, too. Every division game, even against creampuffs and also-rans, are four-point games. But the Islanders are a special case, whether the Penguins want to admit it or not.
And, generally, they don’t.
“Nah, win or lose, it doesn’t matter the opponent,” said Penguins goalie Matt Murray. “It’s the same.”
But is it? Of course, if we lined up 100 coaches and asked the same question, 99 would say the same. And 99 would mean it but be wrong. There are some teams, some games which are more important, not because of the standings or TV audience, but because it’s essential to be able to beat that team. Sometimes it’s important to overcome that specific, systematic, rigidly structured, hungry team, which has embarrassed them in the past.
And the team which continues to torture them, as evidence Tuesday night. Heck, yes, it is more important to beat the New York Islanders than most other teams.
New York plays the game the right way. They may be a little more talented than the Penguins, depending on which day and which Penguins players are on IR. When fully healthy, or even close, the Penguins are far and away the better team on paper, but New York disposed of the Penguins in just four games in Round One last year. Because New York does all of the little things well and plays hard, the Penguins need to beat them, especially with their new and improved team concept.
To beat New York would mean the Penguins played the game the right way, paid attention to the details, played within their system, and played just a little harder than the team, which may be the most consistent in the NHL.
“We’ve got to play the game that we want to play, a hard north-south game,” Brandon Tanev said. “We’ve got to limit their offense with (fewer) turnovers, but at the same time, we’ve got to come together as a group and get ready for the next game.”
Tanev has become a primary focus of the Pittsburgh Penguins adherence to the hockey, which head coach Mike Sullivan has preached for a few seasons. The Penguins are playing fast, hard-nosed hockey. They are embracing their identity rather than choosing to be pretty.
In fairness, Penguins gained a point, and the New York Islanders are 14-0-1 in their last 15 games. The ridiculous New York run has firmly lodged them in only second place of the Metro Division behind the Washington Capitals, who are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.
The Penguins did a lot of things right against New York on Tuesday night. The didn’t score four goals by accident, nor were the gifted softies as they were against Toronto on Saturday. However, playing this New York team is like a trip to the dentist. They will find every imperfection and every nerve and pick at it, and they will remind you to floss.
New York is not an exciting team, and that is what makes them such an important team to beat. In addition to keeping pace with the front runners in the Metro Division, a win against New York means the Penguins played their game to their best potential. The Penguins best game resembles New York because it is no-frills, aggressive, and intense. And New York head coach Barry Trotz has sent the Penguins home in the last two postseasons, first with the Washington Capitals and last season with New York.
The Penguins road to the Stanley Cup most likely goes straight through New York, but if it doesn’t, New York is still the standard the Penguins have to meet and exceed to reach their goals. And of course, there is Washington, but that’s another matter for another day. For now, New York is their mirror image with or without Sidney Crosby.
“We held the lead for most of the game there, and we could do a better job of closing,” Tanev said. “You’ve got to learn from these lessons and get ready to play the next game against them.”
Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long to see what the Pittsburgh Penguins learned. Thursday night, the Penguins get another shot at New York at the Barclays Center.