We may not have an exact start date yet, but we know the New York Islanders will tangle with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This marks the second time in three seasons these two teams will meet in the post-season. The Penguins enter the series holding first place in the East Division over the fourth place Islanders. In 2019, New York had home ice advantage when they swept the Penguins out of the first round.
Pittsburgh is obviously hoping for a different outcome this time. To that end, the acquisition of Jeff Carter on April 12 could set up some unique opportunities. The 36-year-old brings veteran presence, with two Cups in his trophy case already. He’s also been on a tear, scoring nine goals in 14 games since the trade.
The Penguins hold the edge in the season series, with New York winning just two of eight contests in the regular season.
The Islanders have adjusted down the road, notably with the acquisitions of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils in April. With forward Anders Lee suffering a season-ending injury in March, the need down the middle was clear.
Against the Penguins, it’s all about that structure. Head coach Barry Trotz knows what he has to do and handling the depth and skill of Pittsburgh is Job One.
“So it’s going to be the team that can get to their game, stay to their game and get it done; that’s what I’ve learned in all these years, is you’ve got to get to your game and stay to your game,” he said. “There’s going to be times when the other team’s going to have a push and you’re going to have to survive those pushes.”
Those pushes start with Sidney Crosby. The 33-year-old led the Penguins in scoring once more with 62 points, including nine goals against the Islanders in the regular season. He’s amassed 122 career points against New York, more than he’s scored against any other single team in the NHL in his career.
Evgeni Malkin is another issue. The forward practiced Wednesday in his usual spot and was held out of action for Saturday’s third period against the Buffalo Sabres, but there’s no reason to assume he won’t be ready to go. Rumours abound as to whether or not he’s 100 percent going into the post-season, though.
The Islanders will counter Pittsburgh’s firepower with structure, structure, structure – and Mathew Barzal, of course. The 23-year-old posted 45 points in 55 games this season, including 17 goals. He scored six points against the Penguins and has already built up considerable post-season experience, with 24 points in 30 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
New York will have plenty to contend with when it comes to special teams, with Pittsburgh’s power play back on track after a shaky campaign last time around. The Penguins are firing on all cylinders with the man-advantage, taking home the fourth-best unit in the league at 23.7 percent. Jared McCann has been the man on the PP.
The Islanders’ penalty kill is nothing to sneeze at. They killed 39 of 42 chances in the regular season.
But New York knows they struggled mightily to close out the regular season, making momentum a serious issue. They posted a 13-11-3 record ahead of the finish line and will need more consistency if they want the edge against Pittsburgh.
A lot of that falls on goalie Semyon Varlamov. The netminder was strong for the Islanders, posting a 19-11-4 record with a 2.04 goals against average and a .929 save percentage. He led the league with seven shutouts and should be the difference-maker against the Penguins.
Tristan Jarry will have the net for Pittsburgh. He missed the final game of the regular season due to injury but all indications are he’ll be ready to rumble for Game One. He had a heavy workload this year, going 25-9-3 in 38 starts. He pulled out five wins in six starts against the Islanders, too.