Three reasons why tonights Isles-Penguins game won’t be another embarrassment to hockey

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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.

Jeff Skinner has been just what Sabres needed

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The Buffalo Sabres seem to be finally — finally! — taking some sort of a significant step toward regaining relevance in the NHL.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, they were able to pick up their 10th win and improve to 10-6-2 on the young season.

This, of course, is major progress in Buffalo.

For one, this is tied for the Sabres’ best start (22 points) through their first 18 games since the 2009-10 season when they were 12-5-1 at this point.

(They also had 22 through 18 games during the 2011-12 season.)

Second, the Sabres did not win their 10th game of the season a year ago until Dec. 29. They didn’t get it until Dec. 6 in 2016-17. Even more, this is only the third time since 2009-10 that they have won their 10th game of the season before the calendar rolled over to December. All of that is insane, and just shows how much this organization has struggled over the past seven seasons.

There are a lot of reasons for their newfound early success.

[Related: Top Pick Dahlin has been strong for Sabres]

At the top of that list is the fact that Jack Eichel is healthy and, once again, playing like a superstar.

The other is that some of their offseason acquisitions are really paying off in the early going. Conor Sheary, thought to be a salary dump by the Pittsburgh Penguins, has six goals and 10 points in 18 games and been a nice complement to their forwards. Carter Hutton has been solid in net. They have another emerging star in top pick Rasmus Dahlin whose progress seems to be ahead of schedule for an 18-year-old defender.

But perhaps the biggest improvement from outside the organization has been the addition of Jeff Skinner.

The Sabres desperately needed a top-line winger that could complement Eichel, something he had not had over the first three years of his career. Skinner has given them exactly what they needed, and perhaps even more. It should not be a surprise.

Skinner, still only 26 years old even though it seems like he’s been around forever, has been one of the most productive goal-scorers in the league in recent years. Entering this season he was 15th in the league in goals over the previous five years and still in the middle of what should be his peak years of production in the league is on pace for what could be a career year.

He opened the scoring for the Sabres on Tuesday night with what is already his 13th goal of the season. Only Boston’s David Pastrnak has scored more as of this posting.

He and Eichel have been especially dominant together. When the Sabres have had the two of them on the ice this season they are outscoring teams by a 14-7 margin at even-strength and completely dictating the pace of the play from a shot attempt and scoring chance perspective.

They are not only steamrolling opposing defenses, they have given each exactly what the other needed and had been lacking for most of their careers.

Skinner has been an exceptional goal-scorer throughout his career despite the fact he has never had a center like Eichel setting him up.

Eichel has been great since the Sabres drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick four years ago even though he has never really had a finisher like Skinner on his wing.

Put them together and it has been close to perfection for the Sabres.

The two big questions for the Sabres now: Can the duo keep this rolling and do the Sabres have enough in the lineup beyond them to maintain this early pace, and will they be able to keep Skinner beyond this season. Skinner remains unsigned after this season and is no doubt playing his way into a huge contract given the combination of his age (again, still only 26) and continued production.

For right now this should be something that Sabres fans are enjoying, because they have not seen much of it over the better part of the past decade.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tom Wilson scores goal, gets called for penalty on same play

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Tom Wilson was back on the ice on Tuesday night, returning from his latest suspension earlier than expected after an independent arbitrator reduced his 20-game suspension to 14 games earlier in the day.

It took less than 20 minutes for the type of insanity that can only happen around Tom Wilson to take place.

With 27.4 seconds left in the first period of the Washington Capitals’ game against the Minnesota Wild, Wilson scored his first goal of the season when he drove to the net and directed a puck behind Devan Dubnyk to give his team a 2-0 lead.

[Related: Tom Wilson suspension reduced to 14 games]

Totally normal play.

Except for the fact Wilson was also called for a penalty on the play for goaltender interference for running into Dubnyk (with some help from Wild defenseman Ryan Suter).

The thinking here is that the puck went in the net before the contact was made, so both calls — the goal and the penalty — get made.

Still, this is not something you see very often in an NHL box score.

This can only happen to Tom Wilson.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kuhnhackl scores weird, wild goal against Canucks

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Tom Kuhnhackl doesn’t find himself on the scoresheet very often.

Entering play on Tuesday night he had one goal in six games this season, only three in his past 75 games dating back to last season, and only 12 in 174 career games.

In any given season he might give you five goals.

At this point in his career he is what he is: A fourth-liner that eats up some minutes at the bottom of the lineup and kills penalties by wildly throwing his body in front of slap shots with little to no regard for his own well being. He showed enough doing that over the first three years of his career to get a one-year contract from the New York Islanders over the summer.

In the first period of their game against the Vancouver Canucks he netted his second goal of the season, and it might be one of the weirdest goals we see all year.

It was beautiful, and at the same time, incredibly ugly.

Beautiful in the sense that he even managed to get the puck on net as he fell to the ice, ended up on his back, and facing away from the net.

Ugly in the sense that Canucks goalie Jakob Markstrom should never give up a goal on this shot.

I hate it when people say “[insert random NHL goalie here] would love to have that goal back,” because goalies are competitive people and never think they should give up a goal and would like to have all of them back … but maybe it would be in Markstrom’s best interest to just stop thinking about that goal and its very existence. Just pretend it never happened.

Just 44 seconds later the Islanders took the lead on a Josh Bailey goal and then extended their lead later in the period thanks to Jordan Eberle.

For as good as the Canucks have been so far this season their goaltending has not been good. That was obviously on display here.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Sabres host Lightning on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

For years, the Tampa Bay Lightning have chased a second Stanley Cup (and first with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Nikita Kucherov as their main stars). Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres have mainly chased competency.

Both teams seem like they’re heading nicely toward their goals. The Lightning just saw a four-game winning streak end, and with a 12-4-1 record (25 points), they lead the Eastern Conference and rank second in the NHL.

The Sabres have won three of their last four games, placing them at 9-6-2 for 20 points. Entering Tuesday’s action, Buffalo currently holds the East’s second wild-card spot.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

While the Lightning combine Stamkos-Kucherov with Brayden Point‘s impressive second line, the Sabres have enjoyed great work from Jack Eichel. Almost as importantly, they’ve seen marked improvements in various areas of the game.

Eichel vs. Stamkos/Point should be fun, and fans can also get a look at Rasmus Dahlin, who’s made a smooth transition for Buffalo after becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. This game should be an interesting barometer for the Sabres, as they face one of the league’s clearest powerhouses.

[Extended preview for Tuesday’s game]

What: Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, November 13th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Lightning-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING

J.T. Miller — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov

Yanni Gourde — Brayden Point — Tyler Johnson

Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph

Danick Martel — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor Hedman — Dan Girardi

Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak

Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Louis Domingue

Sabres

Jeff Skinner — Jack Eichel — Sam Reinhart

Vladimir SobotkaEvan RodriguesJason Pominville

Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo

Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonTage Thompson

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen

Marco ScandellaZach Bogosian

Nathan Beaulieu — Rasmus Dahlin

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.