The New York Islanders are done being a punching bag for the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a decade of futility languishing mostly near the bottom of the Metro/Atlantic Division standings, the Islanders can finally meet the Penguins on even footing – and that’s a good thing for hockey.
The Islanders erased one- and two-goal deficits on Friday in their fifth contest of the season against the Penguins – one the Isles won 6-3 on the strength of a four-goal night from Kyle Okposo.
The Isles never went away in the game and weathered a two-goal, three-point night from Sidney Crosby to keep their lead over Pittsburgh for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
That’s a sentence you wouldn’t expect to read last year.
The Isles don’t have the same high-priced talent that the Penguins do, but they’ve got solid defence, a tremendous leader in John Tavares and some stability in goal for the first time in recent memory with Jaroslav Halak between the pipes.
And that Okposo kid - he's alright, too.
The Islanders are, at long last, a match for the Pittsburgh Penguins – and that’s a good thing for both sides.
The spotlight will always shine white-hot on the Pens while Sidney Crosby is there, but it shines a little brighter when Crosby has a hated rival to lead his team against.
Those rivals have been the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers in recent years, but both rivalries have lost some of their steam.
The Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin question was answered long ago for most people. And while Penguins-Capitals games still bring some heat, they’re nowhere near as intense as they used to be.
The Pens’ rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers is sagging a bit as well, with the Orange and Black trending downward and unlikely to make the playoffs this season. It’ll be at least another year before we see the two Pennsylvania-based teams renew post-season hostilities, but in the meantime, the Islanders look ready to give Pittsburgh fits.
Friday was the third straight regular season win for the Isles over the Penguins, and their second on home ice at Nassau Coliseum.
It’s the Islanders’ last year on Long Island, but you wouldn’t have known it from the crowd. They were into the game the whole time, cheering their squad and cat-calling Crosby from buzzer to buzzer.
Their team is moving to Brooklyn next year, but for now, they've got something real to cheer about.
This version of the Islanders looks a lot better than the ‘happy to be here’ squad that squeaked into a first-round matchup with Pittsburgh in 2013. The Islanders were a tough out for the Penguins that year and hung around for six games, including two overtime losses.
There’s no question the Islanders are a better squad today than they were back then. The Penguins, however, are more or less just as effective now as they were then. They’ve juggled a few wingers and tinkered a lot with their bottom-six forwards, but the core of the team remains the same. Crosby is still Crosby. Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury are essentially the same players. Kris Letang has been hampered by injuries, and James Neal has been replaced by Patric Hornqvist.
But the Isles are a much-improved team. They’re a top contender in the East thanks to growth among their skilled young players and the addition of vets like Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk on the back end.
The Penguins and Isles are a lot closer in skill now than they've ever been.
For the first time in a long time, these two squads are a can't-miss matchup.