PREVIEW: With eye on first place, Pittsburgh Penguins battle New York Islanders again

Mar 25, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) and center Jared McCann (19) celebrate after defeating the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins shutout the Sabres 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins could be licking their chops, while the New York Islanders will try not to lick their figurative wounds Monday when the teams meet in Pittsburgh.

It will be the last of the eight games this season between two of the clubs vying to win the East Division.

Pittsburgh improved to 5-2 in the season series Saturday with a 6-3 win and can pull even with the Islanders in points with a regulation win Monday.

The Penguins’ win Saturday was decisive. They zoomed to a five-goal lead before the game was halfway through regulation. They also got offense from all corners — seven points from their top line, including a hat trick by Bryan Rust, and, overall at least one point each from 10 players.

So why wouldn’t Pittsburgh be itching to get right back at it against the Islanders?

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan tried to put the brakes on that notion.

“We’re trying to compete as hard as we can,” he said. “Regardless of what the score looks like, the games are all so tight.”

Pittsburgh’s lineup was decimated by injuries before center Mark Jankowski was put on the NHL’s COVID-19 list before Saturday’s game. The Penguins were without three of their top four centers, five of its top nine forwards and its entire regular second line.

Jankowski returned to practice Sunday after clearing the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, as did second-line winger Jason Zucker, but a parade of players who have passed through the Penguins’ taxi squad or began the season as reserves have been pressed into action.

“I’ve had to learn a lot of names this year,” Pittsburgh forward Jared McCann joked.

“We’ve got the next-man-up mentality. We’ve had some guys who have come in and been awesome.”

Sullivan said he has lost count of how many players he has dressed for games. For the record, it’s 34.

“It seems like we’re using an awful lot this year for obvious reasons,” Sullivan said. “It’s just one of the challenges that this unique circumstance presents.”

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The Islanders, who had won three straight and were 14-2-1 in their previous 17 games before Saturday, gave up an uncharacteristic number of goals.

It was just the second time they have allowed six goals, the first time since two weeks into the season — and they did it on just 21 shots.

That included four goals allowed on nine shots by goaltender Ilya Sorokin before he got yanked. Sorokin had won his previous eight starts.

New York also allowed Pittsburgh to score twice on its four power plays while going 0-for-2 with a man-advantage, which made Saturday’s game one the Islanders’ worst among their nine regulation losses. Coach Barry Trotz blasted his team, saying only about five players showed up.

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Jordan Eberle, who scored New York’s third goal Saturday, said his team was left trying to find ways to feel good about itself after digging too deep a hole against a team it will face again Monday. He hopes those three goals in the second half of the game will help.

“We understand we’ve got these guys (Monday), and you just wanted to get your foot in the door,” Eberle said. “We’re a veteran team. We understand what we have to do to win hockey games. I think you’ll see a different team Monday.”

–Field Level Media