Penguins prep for surprisingly critical game against Islanders
When the NHL schedule was released in June, a meeting between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders on a Thursday night in early December hardly qualified as a marquee matchup.
As it turns out, it’s a pretty big game.
The Islanders, off to a 13-10-3 start with a rejuvenated defense under new coach Barry Trotz, hold down the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The Penguins, off to an uneven 11-10-5 start but coming off a 6-3 victory over Colorado on Tuesday night, are two points out of third place.
For defenseman Jack Johnson, the carrot of waking up Friday morning in a playoff spot is a significant motivator, even in December.
“It’s always important,” Johnson said. “You always want to be in a playoff spot, so yeah.”
The Penguins and Islanders aren’t the only teams looking at that carrot. Third through eighth place in the division are separated by six points coming into Thursday’s games.
“I think all the divisional games are big games,” Johnson said. “They’re big point swings. I think we approach all the divisional games as extremely important points in the standings no matter what time of year it is.”
Casey DeSmith will make his third straight start in goal for the Penguins.
Dominik Simon, out on a day-to-day basis with a lower-body injury, isn’t expected to play. Bryan Rust figures to take his spot on the first line, and Garrett Wilson, a healthy scratch for the past two games, will return to the lineup on the fourth line.
The defense is expected to remain unchanged, with Marcus Pettersson playing his second game with the Penguins while Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel are scratched.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.