NHL on NBCSN: Tavares’ hottest line in hockey faces Penguins

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NBCSN continues its coverage of the 2013-14 campaign tonight when the New York Islanders host the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum at 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

The Islanders gave the Penguins a headache in their 2013 first round series, but they didn’t look like the same team for the first half of this season. The Islanders were 9-19-7 by mid-December even after they tried to give themselves a shot in the arm with the acquisition of Thomas Vanek.

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That’s not the team Pittsburgh will face tonight either. The Islanders’ top line of John Tavares, Vanek, and Kyle Okposo has been great all season, but lately that trio has been overpowering their competition. They’ve combined for 17 goals and 43 points in 11 contests this month. That’s better than any other trio has done over that stretch.

Tavares in particular has been phenomenal with seven goals and a league-leading 18 points in January. As a result, he’s one of just two players that has already reached the 60-point mark.

Of course, the other one and the Art Ross Trophy leader will also be featured tonight. It’s rare for Sidney Crosby to be held off the scoresheet, especially against the Islanders. They’re one of the teams he’d play all 82 games against if he could, given that he has 24 goals and 80 points in 44 career contests against the Islanders.

Which is just a part of the larger problem for New York tonight. Pittsburgh isn’t a team that can be easily overwhelm offensively. The Islanders might have the hotter top line, but the Penguins have the edge in star power.

Pittsburgh is coming off of a 5-1 victory over Montreal to improve to 35-13-2 this season. Even though many of the Metropolitan Division teams have heated up in recent weeks, the Penguins still have a 15 point lead on the division title. With 32 games left in their schedule, anything’s still possible, but if finish below first in the Metropolitan, it would have to be seen as a significant collapse.

By contrast, it would be remarkable for the Islanders manage to make the playoffs. Even after going 10-3-0, they are still last in the division. In other words, they can’t afford to slow down now — not with the Olympic break and then trade deadline coming up. The Islanders are running out of time to prove to GM Garth Snow that they are a team worth keeping intact or even adding to.

A win against a team of Pittsburgh’s caliber would certainly help make that case.