The New York Islanders and the Carolina Hurricanes will do battle for the first time ever in the playoffs and it is as improbable a matchup as you can imagine. The Islanders are in the second round for the first time since 2016, when they twisted with the Tampa Bay Lightning and lost in five games.
The Hurricanes have not seen the post-season since 2009, when they drew the New Jersey Devils in the first round and won in seven. They took Boston out of the running in the second round and advanced through to get flounced by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Islanders are coming off a first-round sweep of the Penguins in these playoffs, while the Hurricanes dropped the Washington Capitals in seven. The fact that two adversaries, the Penguins and Capitals, were bounced in the first round is another of many first round stories, proving that this game is still full of surprises irrespective any shrill hang-ups over the “format.”
So, like with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins, energy could be a factor. The Islanders haven’t played since April 16, like Columbus, and the Hurricanes played recently. They competed in a double overtime spectacular Wednesday to close out the series.
The Islanders are the more offensive team in this matchup. In a way. They averaged 3.50 goals per game and had a power play working at 15.38 percent. Jordan Eberle stepped to the fore with four goals in four games and a total of six points. He scored a game-winner and seems to be on a tear, so the Hurricanes will have to contain him.
But it comes back to the break, with Long Island off for nine days – the longest playoff break for a team since Chicago in 2015. Granted, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup with that kind of time off and that could supercharge the offence for the Islanders, too. New York boasted a plus-32 goal differential in the regular season and that was in large part due to defence, with the Islanders scoring just 228 goals.
Luckily, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson produced in the first round. Each had three goals, while Anders Lee, Leo Komarov, Nick Leddy, and Anthony Beauvillier all had a goal each. Nobody else found the net for the Islanders against Pittsburgh. Mathew Barzal had five assists but couldn’t score in 14 shots, so he’d like more looks.
The Hurricanes averaged three goals a game against Washington, with a power play working at 12 percent. 23-year-old winger Warren Foegele led the way in goal-scoring for Carolina. He scored four goals on a dozen shots. He got in Braden Holtby’s head in the first round, but he’s somehow flown under the radar of many hockey fans. That could change against Long Island.
Jordan Staal, Dougie Hamilton and Teuvo Teravainen all had three goals for the Hurricanes in Round One. Staal and Hamilton had six points, while the Helsinki-born winger had four with 22 shots on goal. Brock McGinn, Sebastian Aho and Andre Svechnikov had two goals each, with Aho and McGinn posting five points each. Svechnikov sustained a concussion in Game Three, but he’s skating again.
Justin Williams had four points in the series, while it was Jaccob Slavin who led the team in points altogether with nine assists. That speaks to the multiplicity of attack for Carolina, who’ll use defence to activate the attack. If they can keep Slavin and Hamilton cooking as part of the offence, they’ll test the Islanders.
The Islanders shut down the Penguins in the first round in such a complete way that it had to be disconcerting for Sidney Crosby and Co. New York allowed just one and a half goals against per game and attained 90.91 percent on the penalty kill. Their return to the Barclays Center should allow for a return to their competent approach to team defence.
Head coach Barry Trotz has the Islanders playing hockey his way. They trailed for less than five minutes against the Penguins and had command of the entire series, limiting Pittsburgh’s offence to a snivelling six goals.
Ryan Pulock leads the way. He averaged 22:55 of ice time in the series with Pittsburgh and posted an assist with four shots on goal. The 24-year-old’s approach is a simple one and he doesn’t take risks. His pairing with Adam Pelech was lights-out. Nick Leddy, averaging 21:23 a game, has veteran skill and agility. He can initiate and absorb physicality.
The Hurricanes like to activate their defence and play with tempo variations. They did leave the door open more often to the Capitals than they would’ve liked, permitting 2.86 goals against in the first round. That’s a higher differential than any playoff team wants, but Washington is an offensive livewire and containment was an issue.
For Carolina, it’s about guts and glory. They had to manage a few comeback wins against the Capitals and absorbed some heavy losses, including a 6-0 walkover in Game Five. Extenuating that fluid flair for the theatrical will put Slavin and his compatriots back to work at streamlining their game, which may limit offensive drive.
But this is serious business and Slavin can play a seasoned game. He averaged just a hair under 27 minutes a game and will be up for more of the same, which puts him in charge of pushing the action. He can play a shutdown role and that will balance New York’s nose for defence. Justin Faulk, who averaged 26:11 against Washington, is a smart, perceptive defenceman.
Robin Lehner was terrific for the Islanders, stopping 130 of 136 shots and protecting his spots. He’s the first NHL netminder to win his first four post-season starts since Michael Leighton did it with the Flyers in 2010. Lehner posted a 1.47 goals against average and a .956 save percentage in 245 minutes, plus he was 1.00 and .967 in his last three games.
A big part of Lehner’s step forward has been his capacity to simplify. He’s made changes, which has made him more efficient. He’s talking to his defenceman more, which means he’s picking his spots and sides. That helps positioning, which has cut down on bad goals against. And his defence has cut down on rebounds by jamming the action to the outside. Pittsburgh couldn’t score a rebound goal against Lehner.
Mrazek saw a lot more action and a lot more shots. The Hurricanes goalie faced 189 shots in the series and made 170 saves for a goals against average of 2.53 and a .899 save percentage. Volume could still be an issue for the experienced 27-year-old.
Mrazek doesn’t have the strong defence of the Islanders in front of him and that opens him up more. That said, this is a talented goalie when it comes to making lateral saves. He moves a lot in his crease and makes a lot of plays on a reactionary basis, which means speed counts. If the Islanders can force fast plays and take an extra stride or two, they could push Mrazek inside.
The battle between the NHL’s most defensive defence groups and one of the most active defensive groups will produce captivating results in the second round. The “Bunch of Jerks” earned their spot through voracious performances and general stick-to-itiveness. They’ve given themselves a chance to win, but they’re up against the stingiest team in the sport. The Islanders know how to cancel out animated teams.
In the end, New York’s accomplished, orderly system will surpass Carolina’s funhouse style in six games.
(Photo credit: NHL.com)