The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders played eight times this season, and the Penguins won six, including four regulation wins. The Penguins allowed the fewest goals and earned the most points against the Islanders than any of the three other East Division playoff teams.
On paper, it’s a perfect match for the Penguins.
But there are two factors to consider: Islanders head coach Barry Trotz and the rigid defensive structure the Fish Sticks love to deploy.
The Penguins have a historical jam with the Islanders, too. In 1975, New York rallied from a 3-0 games deficit to win in seven. In 1993…ugh. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins second-round playoff loss to the Islanders and David Volek sent the Penguins franchise careening towards bankruptcy and an inch from contraction or relocation.
The rested 2019 Pittsburgh Penguins were supposed to rebound from their 2018 disappointment and reclaim their third Stanley Cup in four years. Instead, the Islanders sent them packing with a four-game sweep.
The Penguins are 1-4 against the Islanders in the NHL playoffs. It’s been a wild history, which NYI Hockey Now happily chronicled.
Beyond a playoff series, the Penguins aging core also knows their time is short. New GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke could make significant changes after this season if the Penguins again flame out in the postseason. The Penguins can’t afford another early loss and stay intact.
4 Key Points, Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders
*Speed and The Penguins Defensemen
A speed game isn’t about who can skate faster. It’s about who plays faster. The Pittsburgh Penguins are blazingly fast on both accounts, and it starts with their defensemen.
The Penguins were able to blaze past New York this season. Head coach Mike Sullivan had defensemen working this drill on Tuesday morning. Notice how the defensemen create a passing lane to move the puck up the ice. It was all about dealing with the forecheck and breakouts.
The Penguins defensemen have been especially fast this season, and it’s been rocket fuel for the Penguins offense, even without Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen for long stretches. The Penguins were THE highest-scoring team in the league (196 goals). In their best games against Washington, Philadephia, and the New York Islanders, the Penguins laid waste to the forecheck, which opened up their rush game.
Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci as the Penguins second pairing create a dangerous matchup for every team. Matheson’s elite speed and willingness to use it, and Ceci’s ability to read the play and join the rush, give the Penguins the equivalent four forwards when the second-pair is on the ice.
However, New York will likely pull back and clog the neutral zone. That’s a Barry Trotz thing to do.
That’s where the Penguins team speed will play a big role.
“(We have to) move the puck quickly. (You) try to get up the ice as fast as you can to join the rush to beat the opposition to the corners or get in the play…,” Bryan Rust said. “The Islanders defend so well, always have the numbers back. I think for us, we’ve got to really work on using our speed to maybe gain a foot or two, or a little bit of space on some guys to try to make some plays when they’re there.”
The Penguins have a huge advantage on the blue line in this series.
On speed and defensemen, both advantage Penguins.
*Best Players Being Their Best
Team MVP Sidney Crosby had nine points (3-6-9), Kris Letang had nine points (4-5-9), and Bryan Rust had eight points (5-3-8). The Penguins’ best players were indeed their best players against the New York Islanders.
Conversely, Islanders’ top-line center Mathew Barzal had six points (3-3-6) but was a minus-4. New York was 18th in scoring and was inept at putting the puck in the net after Anders Lee suffered a knee injury which ended his season.
After Lee’s injury on March 11, New York scored more than three goals just six times in 27 games. The team was only 15-11-3 after Lee was injured.
Jordan Eberle had four goals against the Penguins but only four points (4-0-4).
*Depth Scoring; Kyle Palmieri?
The Pittsburgh Penguins have four lines that can score. On paper, the New York Islanders lose at least three of four line matchups.
Crosby’s line with Guentzel and Rust is superior to Barzal’s line with Eberle and the mystery LW. Evgeni Malkin’s line with Kasperi Kapanen is better than Brock Nelson’s line with Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier.
Jeff Carter gives the Penguins a big advantage over most teams with a potent third line that plays fast. This is where New York GM Lou Lamoriello probably screwed up. He acquired RW Kyle Palmieri and third-line center Travis Zajac to fill the hole created by Lee’s injury. The problem is that Palmieri struggled to adjust to LW.
Palmieri had four points (2-2-4) in 17 games. No Bueno. That only exacerbates the Penguins’ third-line advantage because Palmieri was paired with third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Zajac took the RW spot on the “best fourth-line in hockey,” but at best, the Islanders’ strength is a wash against Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese. Aston-Reese and Tanev set career highs in points per game, and both received Selke consideration last season. The Blueger line was a solid third line which chipped in offense, but with Carter’s acquisition, they are the fourth line and can easily challenge as one of the best in hockey.
New York doesn’t have a matchup advantage anywhere in the lineup.
3.5 of four Penguins advantages.
Pittsburgh Penguins Final Analysis
It will be about patience, converting opportunities, and keeping defensive postures. If the Islanders break their posture, it’s over. If the Penguins lose their patience against the methodical New York structure, they’re in deep trouble.
In this series, the goaltending should be close to even, which is good news for the Penguins. Tristan Jarry showed well in his only previous career playoff appearance, which was Game 4 of the playoff bubble Qualifying Round series in Toronto against Montreal.
New York goalie Semyon Varlamov is as solid as they come, though he struggled against the Penguins this season, with a 1-3-2 record and a sickly .897 save percentage.
This season, Jarry was 5-1-0 against New York with a .917 save percentage and outright stole the game on Feb. 20.
The Penguins also showed an ability to play a stingy, tight, and wholly defensive game in a pair of 1-0 wins over the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in the final weeks of the season.
That’s a game-changer, too.
“These guys have played in those environments against teams that have been stingy defensively. You don’t win Stanley Cups unless you understand how to play in those environments,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I know our team is very much capable of playing a certain game that can bring us success against any opponent.”
If each team plays well, the Penguins will win this series quickly. The Pittsburgh Penguins are deeper, faster, and far more complete than the debacle in 2019. ESPN radio’s Adam Crowley noted via Twitter that four of the Penguins 2019 defensemen were Jack Johnson, Olli Maatta, Erik Gudbranson, and Marcus Pettersson.
That’s not exactly a speed defense. This is a much different series, and New York didn’t patch their biggest hole at the trade deadline. Palmieri’s lack of offense won’t cut it for the New York Islanders.
The Penguins offensive power, speed on the backend, and willingness to play a defensive game covers all of the bases against the New York Islanders.
This shouldn’t be a long series, but we’ll account for the unknown. Instead of five games, we’ll concede six.
PHN Prediction: Penguins in 6.