The New York Islanders are back in the post-season for the first time in three years and they’ve got home ice advantage for the first time since 1988, plus they’re going up against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
If the Islanders have the inside track on anything, it’s through head coach Barry Trotz. The former coach of the Washington Capitals has seen his fair share of the Penguins in the playoffs. He’s faced them in each of the last three seasons and took the Capitals to the Cup last season.
And there’s a lot of history between these two franchises, whether you want to include the infamous 2011 brawl at Nassau – the one with 346 penalty minutes – or four playoff meetings (1975, 1982, 1993, 2013) that so far have given Long Island the edge. This year’s outing features a lot of new pieces, obviously, and the regular season between the two clubs is split down the middle.
The Islanders and Penguins haven’t seen each other since December 10 of 2018 and the warmth has gone off the fire, so to speak. Returning to a playoff atmosphere at the Nassau Coliseum could change things and the physicality does seem to ramp up for the post-season, so we could see some heat.
The Islanders aren’t exactly an offensive powerhouse. They finished the regular season with 223 goals scored, putting them 23rd overall. Their leading scorer, Mathew Barzal, had just 62 points and there’s no chance New York will win a scoring battle against the Penguins. Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey had more than 50 points, but that’s where things really taper off.
Jordan Eberle, for instance, had just 37 points in 78 games. That’s a career low, although he did post 37 points in 48 games for his third year in Edmonton. Somehow, Eberle’s low totals didn’t harm the Islanders’ overall chances because run-and-gun isn’t their thing.
Oddly enough, Long Island’s most consistent offensive threat might be its fourth line. The unit of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin has come up with some quality play, especially with Cizikas’ career-best 20-goal season. The Toronto-born forward had previously never escaped single-digit scoring, so this year was a special one.
For the Penguins, the offensive picture is clear. Sidney Crosby is still one of the league’s most dynamic players and Trotz knows him well. Crosby finished a season with 100 points for the sixth time in his career and his Penguins scored 272 goals, good for sixth overall. That’s a fair shade better than their opponents.
Evgeni Malkin will be hitting the post-season for the 13th time in his career and he’s disappointed in his performance during the regular season. He finished fourth on the Penguins with 72 points, plus he led the squad in penalty minutes and had poor plus-minus numbers. He’ll be seeking a measure of redemption and the Islanders are first up on his list.
Looking deeper down the forward group does not make the task easier for the Islanders. Consider Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel and Nick Bjugstad. Or Patric Hornqvist, who came up with 37 points in 69 games and can display a nasty streak. Bjugstad, a February acquisition for Pittsburgh, brings size and a right-hand shot. And Guentzel, a playoff performer if there ever was one, is coming off a 40-goal season.
This is where the Islanders come to play. They allowed the fewest goals against in the league this season, just 191, and that’s a massive leap when you consider how porous their defence was last season (hint: last overall). That type of sudden change in defensive fortunes has a lot to do with systemic changes and a general dose of hard work.
The Islanders’ team defence has given them a 38-2-2 record when they’ve scored at least three goals. That defensive unit starts with Ryan Pulock, the club’s best blueliner. In just his second full season with the Islanders, the 24-year-old put up 37 points in 82 games – including nine goals. He averaged 22 minutes of ice time a game.
Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk are the veteran presence Long Island needs and they’ve been holding it down together for some time now. They may not put up big numbers, but the duo will draw rough assignments in the series and see plenty of Crosby, Malkin and Co.
For the Penguins, defence was a middle-of-the-road effort. They landed 14th overall in goals allowed (241) and that’s going to have to be good enough. The goal for Pittsburgh will be to score enough to keep the Islanders out of their kitchen, but that could be a tough gamble.
Still, any team that boasts Kris Letang is going to have defensive strengths. The 31-year-old is at the top of the depth chart with Olli Maatta and had 56 points this season, besting 50 points for the fourth time in his career. Pairing Letang with Maatta is a smart decision for Penguins’ brass. The 24-year-old from Jyväskylä averaged just over 18 and a half minutes of ice time a game and he’ll keep pace in the playoffs.
Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz account for the second pairing on most night, while the Penguins will use big Erik Gudbranson to throw his weight around. That could make things exciting if the Islanders get too imaginative in front of the net.
The Islanders will use the tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss right down to the wire. They split duties in the regular season and won the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed, plus they combined for 11 shutouts. Having such a remarkable tandem gives New York options if something should happen in goal, although it’s likely Lehner gets the first nod.
That’s a good thing, as Lehner had 25 wins this season and punched up a 2.13 goals against average. Greiss, who has some post-season experience helping Long Island against the Panthers in 2016, had 23 wins this season and a 2.28 goals against average. If goaltending will win the series and ultimately the Stanley Cup, the Islander stand as good a chance as anyone.
The Penguins bring Matt Murray to the show. He has 44 games of post-season experience and knows how to get by in the big dance. He won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and has to be one of the most qualified netminders in the playoffs at just 24 years of age.
Murray’s backup is Casey DeSmith, who hasn’t seen any playoff action but has faced the Islanders for a win in the regular season. The 27-year-old from Rochester produced a 2.75 goals against average, off his career average by a shade, and posted a .916 save percentage along with 15 wins in 30 starts. He also had three shutouts.
This series has the makings of a hard-fought tilt. The battle between an offensive powerhouse and a defensive stalwart could go either way, but it’s typically goaltending and D that wins championships. And if that’s the case, New York has a clear edge. If they can contain the Penguins’ stars and clog up the neutral zone, they can cut down on Pittsburgh’s tenacious attack. But if the Penguins solve Long Island’s goaltending tandem, oh boy.
It’s down to the wire, but the Islanders win this series in seven games.
(Photo credit: NHL.com/Screenshot)