By every measurable and tangible comparison, the Pittsburgh Penguins are better than the New York Islanders. They should handily win the Round One series, which begins at noon on Sunday at PPG Paints Arena. The checklist is full of marks in the Penguins’ favor.
Top-line scoring. Depth scoring. Lineup depth. Defense scoring. Defense.
Each one tilts to the Penguins, who will wear their “Pittsburgh Gold” jerseys for the home games instead of their back sweaters.
*Editor’s note: We confused the “Pittsburgh Gold” jersey for the reverse retro. We apologize for the error.
And that’s the scary part for the Penguins–the great unknown. What wrinkle will New York head coach Barry Trotz hatch to frustrate the Pittsburgh Penguins? Will Kyle Palmieri, who had just four points (2-2-4) in 17 games since New York acquired him from the New Jersey Devils, suddenly remember that he’s a top-line player and go crazy?
Last season, Florida coach Joel Quenneville made Mike Matheson a healthy scratch in the Qualifying Round series vs. New York. Will he acclimate to playoff hockey?
Will Tristan Jarry hold the fort in his playoff series as “the guy”?
OK, that we can confidently answer yes to the last one because Jarry was stellar in his playoff start last season. But New York embarrassed the Penguins in 2019. We checked. PHN heavily favored those Penguins, too. New York locked down and simply waited for those Penguins to make a mistake, and the Penguins obliged.
(Locked down means something entirely different this year, doesn’t it?)
That loss counts for something. So, too, does the heavily-favored Penguins meek Qualifying Round exit last August against the Montreal Canadiens (for which PHN quarantined for two weeks in a small room and spent heavily to cover), which lasted only four games.
“I think you’re always motivated to go into the playoffs– to have those two experiences fresh in your mind, I think we’ll add some motivation for our guys who were part of it,” Sidney Crosby said. “But it’s a new group, and, you know, we’ve played some good hockey down the stretch. So we need to bring that and another level here when the payoffs start.”
In 75 career games against the Islanders, Crosby has 122 points (32-83-122), which is the most points against a single team by any active NHL player. Crosby has dominated New York, but he wasn’t enough in 2019. In fact, Crosby has only one assist in that dreadful 2019 sweep and was a minus-4.
“We know that going into this that we’re going to have to be good, and we’re going to have to do a good job defensively,” New York defenseman Ryan Pulock said on Thursday following practice on Long Island. “Whoever we’re playing against, they have a few lines that can be very dangerous. We’re going to take it upon ourselves. We’re confident together that we can do a good job no matter who we’re playing, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
On NYI Hockey Now and in the Islanders room, they’re talking about how to shut down Sidney Crosby.
New York has no ego. They will seek to stop the Penguins and frustrate them before worrying about their own needs. About the time the Penguins slam a stick or pound the bench door, New York will strike. At least that’s what New York hopes.
This season, the Penguins handled New York’s best, including top center Mathew Barzal and winger Jordan Eberle. The Pittsburgh Penguins won six of eight games, including four in regulation. Most of the games were one-goal games, but PHN discounts that stat because most games in the NHL are one-goal games. The better team usually wins.
And the better team did win.
How can a team with Leo Komarov on the top line win? A top pairing of Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock, which is solid but not elite, hang with the Penguins?
And that’s what should scare everyone. Because the Islanders aren’t as good on paper as they are on the ice, yet Trotz finds a way to make the bread rise without as much yeast.
Mike Matheson-Cody Ceci is a secret weapon. I jokingly went back and forth with 93-7 the Fan host Chris Mack about the secrecy of Matheson-Ceci (he said no one was talking about them). Chris is a good radio guy and works wonders for that station, by the way.
The Matheson-Ceci speed out of their own end, ability to join the rush, or create the rush, and pinch into the offensive zone gives the Penguins at least four sticks in the offensive zone. That’s when goals happen–and they have.
The Islanders can’t match that pairing’s offensive push or their ability to control the puck. It’s been a while since Ceci had playoff success. The 2017 Eastern Conference Final was a shining moment for him…until Chris Kunitz’s fluttering slapper eluded goalie Craig Anderson in Game 7 double OT, and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the series.
Matheson came from Florida. That organization hasn’t had playoff success since–get this–the 1996 Eastern Conference Final (yes, they trapped Mario Lemieux and the Penguins juggernaut into oblivion and won in seven).
So, Matheson will be getting his first taste of playoff hockey with actual expectations and promise. He became a healthy scratch in last year’s Qualifying Round when the New York Islanders beat the Florida Panthers.
That’s a hidden concern, too. The Penguins need their second pair to be as good as they were in the regular season.
As Crosby referenced, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a different group. Jeff Carter has breathed fresh air into the room and put pucks into the net. Kasperi Kapanen sometimes looks like a young Phil Kessel and sometimes like a young Marian Hossa who plays at both ends of the rink. Jared McCann is on his game, and even unheralded Freddy Gaudreau has become an important cog in the Penguins machine.
On paper, the Penguins have too many weapons and are too good for New York. This should be a quick series, and the Penguins should advance.
But New York always brings the element of surprise. And that’s the scary part, isn’t it?