Let’s dispose of the initial pleasantries and build up. The New York Islanders finished second in the Metro Division and allowed the fewest goals in the NHL. They did so with a cast of players most people don’t recognize and goaltenders most teams didn’t want. They did it with reigning Stanley Cup winning coach Barry Trotz, some underrated talent like Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson and pure determination despite a difficult arena situation. But now they face the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There couldn’t be a worse draw for the poor Islanders, which deserve a better fate. The Penguins found their gear in late February. After stumbling and bumbling since the beginning of the 2017-18 season with inadequate third line centers, team defense awareness which was anything but aware and spotty goaltending, the Penguins are whole again.
The games will be tight. There will be little space. But the playoff speed will be new to several of the Islanders top players including Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier.
Barzal will also face the playoff version of Sidney Crosby. As if the regular season version of Crosby which scored 100 points wasn’t scary enough, Barzal will also face the aggressive and physical version which dribbled P.K. Subban’s head on the ice, too.
Good luck, kid.
There is no doubt the Islanders will give everything they have. In those tight games, a break here or there should give the Islanders a game or two. But these are the Pittsburgh Penguins are rounding into their playoff form and have been for several weeks. The Penguins have cut off opponents scoring chances and goals.
Everything the Islanders can do, the Penguins can do, but the Islanders cannot do everything the Penguins can do.
The Penguins are also a different team since last the teams met in December. Forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, who were acquired from Florida at the trade deadline have added layers to the Penguins game, and McCann especially has added speed and tenacity back to the group.
Defensively, we detailed the team numbers early Wednesday morning. The Penguins have become one of the stingiest teams in the NHL. Goalie Matt Murray in 20 starts since Feb. 23 posted a .928 save percentage which matches the great run of Islanders goalie Robin Lehner who posted a .933 save percentage in 13 starts.
Murray will be a key for the Penguins and he has shown every indication of being the big game goalie who won two Stanley Cups before his rookie status expired.
The Islanders goalies Lehner and Tomas Greiss won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against. They’re playing well and supported by the Islanders team defensive concept. However, neither Greiss or Lehner has yet been successful in the playoffs. Count that as something to watch.
The Penguins are close to healthy and defenseman Brian Dumoulin and heavy forward Zach Aston-Reese are close to returning. With Aston-Reese, the Penguins could again roll four competent lines with scoring punch.
The Penguins will juggle and use different line combinations. Contrary to popular criticism, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is not a dummy when it comes to line combos, nor does he play favorites to the detriment of his team. One matchup which will be crucial for the Penguins is Evgeni Malkin’s line vs. Islanders second line center Brock Nelson.
The Malkin-Nelson matchup will domino down to the third line matchup, too, because of Phil Kessel.
Sullivan appears to have rearranged his middle lines again and put Patric Hornqvist with Malkin on the second line and Kessel has dropped to the third line. Hornqvist has been playing some of the most complete hockey of his career with Nick Bjugstad. Hornqvist reached a higher level with his forecheck which created turnovers and offensive zone time for the Penguins.
Now, Hornqvist will return to the second line with Malkin; the Carl Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist line was the Penguins best last season. If Hornqvist is able to help Malkin elevate his game and avoid the negatives which have haunted Malkin this season, the Penguins will dominate the battle of top lines.
However, the Kessel inclusion on the third line could create a matchup disadvantage for the Penguins. Kessel had 74 turnovers this season including three in the final game of the season. The grinding style with low play which Bjugstad has cultivated on the Penguins third line will need full participation from Kessel or it won’t work.
As a member of the Philadelphia Flyers last season and longtime member of the Detroit Red Wings, Islanders third line center Valtteri Filppula should be no stranger to Penguins fans. At 35-years-old, Filppula is not the threat he once was but the playoffs create unexpected heroes and the Penguins line cannot stumble.
Over the past six weeks, the Penguins defense has been the best since 2016. The addition of Erik Gudbranson has provided a solid, mean right-handed presence on the third pairing. The return and re-acclimation of second pairing defenseman Justin Schultz has also brought more offensive spark and puck movement to the Penguins blue line.
The series will unlikely be decided by either team’s defenseman, excluding the Penguins ace in the hole, Kris Letang.
Both units are solid with a little bit of pop. The Penguins are more physical with Jack Johnson, Gudbranson, and Brian Dumoulin.
It is hard to find areas in which the Islanders have the superior matchup. Their strength has been consistent, structured play. However, in the playoffs, that advantage is erased.
Call it. The Penguins in six.