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Pens can move atop East with victory at Isles

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 1:13 p.m.
The Islanders' John Tavares (91) and Travis Hamonic defend on the Penguins Sidney Crosby in the first period at Consol Energy Center Jan. 29, 2013. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — NHL players are unified in their belief that it's never too early to start looking at the standings because of this season's unique, 48-game regular season.

The standings say tonight's game between the Penguins and Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is a big one.

A victory against the Islanders will put the Penguins atop the Eastern Conference standings and could leave them as many as five points clear of the Atlantic Division lead.

It's early in the season, not that early. This will mark the Penguins' 10th game, as more than 20 percent of their schedule will be complete.

“Everyone knows how precious points are right now,” Islanders center Keith Aucoin said. “And yes, I know we're aware of the standings every day, and I'm sure Pittsburgh is too. These divisional games are absolutely huge.”

And the Islanders (4-3-1) are becoming a legitimate division rival for the Penguins (6-3-0).

Last season, the Islanders beat the Penguins twice in late March. Had the Penguins won either of those games, they would have likely earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Islanders won the only meeting this season between the teams, an emphatic 4-1 victory at Consol Energy Center.

“We are well aware of the Islanders and how good they have become,” Penguins right wing Craig Adams said. “It has taken them a little while to build this team, but you can see that they are on the way up. They've got a lot of speed, a lot of skill.”

The Penguins started the season slowly, going 3-3 and looking generally unimpressive. They bottomed out in that performance against the Islanders.

Since then, they have beaten the Rangers, Devils and Capitals by a combined score of 14-4.

“You can see our big guys, especially Sid (captain Sidney Crosby), are hitting a groove,” Adams said.

Neither Crosby nor Malkin has ever scored a goal against the Islanders' starting goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov.

Marc-Andre Fleury will start in net for the Penguins.

“Things are always really intense when these two teams play,” said Islanders star Johon Tavares, who has recorded 11 points in eight games. “I wouldn't expect this game to be any different.”

Later in their busy week, the Penguins host Washington on Thursday before playing the New Jersey Devils on back-to-back nights this weekend.

Once upon a time, the Penguins perhaps would have overlooked the Islanders.

Not anymore.

“They are a very good hockey team,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “Everyone is taking them seriously. This is a big game for us.”

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