When last we saw the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins get together, the Islanders were punishing the Penguins on the scoreboard 9-3 all while the Islanders were busy making themselves feel better through fighting. The Isles felt slighted by the league and took out their aggression on the Penguins with their fists and elbows to the tune of 346 combined penalty minutes between the teams.
That game in February saw three different players get suspended including Isles forward Trevor Gillies get suspended for nine games for elbowing Eric Tangradi, Matt Martin was suspended for suckerpunching Maxime Talbot, and Penguins enforcer Eric Godard received a ten game suspension for leaving the bench to fight. The NHL’s apparent lack of action even got Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to sound off on the league for not being tough enough about on-ice thuggery.
After getting nearly two full months to sit and stew about this game, we’re suspecting cooler heads will prevail in tonight’s game. Sound crazy? Not at all and here’s three reasons why tonight’s game won’t devolve into Fight Night at the Nassau Coliseum.
1. The Penguins still have plenty to play for
Pittsburgh is up on Tampa Bay by three points for the fourth seed in the East. The fourth seed means home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Pens are also one point behind Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead. If the Penguins end up winning the division, that means they’ll likely land the second seed in the Eastern Conference which means, if things break right for them, they could have home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs if the Capitals got knocked off.
Pittsburgh will treat this game like any other game, it’ll just have a little more hate flowing through it give who they’re playing. With Pittsburgh still having a lot on the line going into their final two games, they don’t need to get involved in a side show act with the Islanders and any of their potential goons that might look to get a little more out of them. The Isles will play them hard and tough, but the Pens have to keep the stiff upper lip if they want to have a shot at winning the Atlantic Division.
2. Brent Johnson isn’t starting
We all remember a bit too well that it was Brent Johnson that helped light a fire for the Islanders in their previous meeting on February 2nd, the game before their massive brawl on February 11th. Johnson’s fight with Rick DiPietro proved to be another addition to the lowlight reel in DiPietro’s career as Johnson KO’ed DiPietro with a straight left and put the former first overall pick on the disabled list with facial fractures and a swollen knee. Johnson started the previous game against the Isles and allowed seven goals in the game. That fight along with Max Talbot’s hit on Blake Comeau, to the Islanders, planted the seed that made the massive circus of fights happen on February 12th. In that game on the 11th Brent Johnson fought Islanders forward Michael Haley which was then interrupted by Eric Godard. Godard’s ten game suspension was thanks to him coming off the bench to stand up for his goalie.
Marc-Andre Fleury did relieve Johnson midway through the blowout affair but left the game after being run by the Islanders. Upon Johnson’s return and the subsequent brouhaha that developed, Johnson had had about enough of the Isles antics when he then went on to give DiPietro the Mike Tyson treatment. Tonight see’s Fleury get the start in goal against DiPietro so as long as those two aren’t chirping each other from 180 feet away, things should be a bit cooler between the goalies.
3. The NHL will be watching very closely
Like a couple of kids who have been fighting all through a long trip in the car, the NHL will be keeping an eye on this game very closely to make sure they don’t get back at it all over again. There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has some sore feeling over what happened the last time between these two, and while there will be a host of Penguins fans in Long Island tonight lusting for another bloodbath and for the Penguins to get vengeance on the likes of Trevor Gillies, there’s virtually zero chance of the NHL and the officials in tonight’s game letting it get to that level again.
If you thought the suspensions were harsh between these two teams before, turning tonight’s game into a circus with the NHL keeping an eye on matters closely could be crushing for the Penguins if they lash out. The Pens have the playoffs to be concerned with and anyone doing something that could get them suspended during the postseason only hurts them more when it counts the most. With Matt Cooke already suspended through the first round of the playoffs, the Pens cannot afford to have any other players being forced to the press box due to on-ice misdeeds.
Coaches Jack Capuano and Dan Bylsma will certainly have all eyes on them as this game progresses tonight and how they choose to handle things as they go along will speak a lot about how they respond to things. Our guess as to what happens tonight: Eric Godard and Trevor Gillies square off early on to settle the score once and for all and then the teams play hockey the rest of the night battling hard for the win. Anything more than that on the ugly side of things and we’ll be disappointed yet fascinated all the same.