At a glance: Trailing the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Islanders are on the brink of elimination heading into Game 6. But this plucky team has surprised many in pushing the Pens in a competitive and entertaining best-of-seven set and will have the added benefit of a home crowd at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday night. Bolstered by a goaltending switch before Game 5, Pittsburgh enters hostile territory after cruising to a 4-0 victory in that game.
Good call: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma replaced starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who struggled mightily throughout the series, with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun on Thursday, a necessary decision that paid dividends. The 36-year-old netminder made 31 saves to record his fourth shutout of the season. By contrast, Fleury had given up 14 goals over four games (and that includes his shutout in Game 1), an eerie reminder of his meltdown last spring when he surrendered 26 goals in six games against the Flyers in the first round. Vokoun is expected to get the start again Saturday night.
Game-time decision: The Islanders’ second-line center, Frans Nielsen, who is battling a lower-body injury, is a game-time decision. Nielsen, the team’s best defensive forward, is often used against the Penguins’ top line of Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. The Isles will be missing a key player on their back end after losing top-pair defenseman Andrew MacDonald in Game 4. MacDonald is expected to miss the rest of the season with a hand injury that required surgery earlier this week.
Potential debut: Should Nielsen be unavailable, it is possible that Isles’ top prospect Brock Nelson could be called into the lineup. The former first-round draft pick (30th overall, 2010) would be making his NHL debut. The 21-year-old center finished with 25 goals and 52 points in 66 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League this season.
Dueling Harts: Pittsburgh’s Crosby and the Islanders’ John Tavares were announced as two of the three Hart Memorial Trophy finalists Friday morning, along with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite missing 12 games to injury, Crosby still finished the regular season fourth in scoring with 56 points. Tavares finished third in the league with 28 goals and led the Islanders with 47 points, helping the team to its first postseason appearance since 2007. The award is given annually to the player “judged most valuable to his team.”