Few believed the Islanders would make the post-season, let alone earn home-ice advantage in the first round, but a storybook season continues with New York owning the second-best record in the Metropolitan Division and hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round One. And here’s the bonus for the Islanders: if there’s any coach familiar with the Penguins, and any coach who knows a game plan that will work to beat Pittsburgh in the post-season, it’s Barry Trotz, who guided the Washington Capitals past the rival Penguins last season en route to a Stanley Cup victory.
Pittsburgh hardly enters the series as an underdog, however. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel and…you get the point. The Penguins can run-and-gun and goaltender Matt Murray has been rock solid in recent weeks. This one could go the distance.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Under the new leadership of GM Lou Lamoriello, coach Barry Trotz and goalie guru Mitch Korn, the Islanders have made a remarkable about-face in just one season. Last year, New York was the worst defensive team in the league; this season, it’s been the best. Netminders Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss put up some of the NHL’s best save percentages, with both contributing shutouts, so it’s not just about the guys in front of them (though they’ve been good, too). Trotz’s structure has been the guiding light defensively, while Korn has helped unlock something special in the goalies.
Far from relying on one player or line for offense, the Islanders have spread the love around. The famous fourth line of Casey Cizikas between Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck continues to contribute, with the center achieving his first 20-goal season. The Isles play old-school, with plenty of hits and blocked shots, and it has flustered the competition all season.
But there is certainly a sense that New York’s miraculous run to the top of the Metro is a mirage, and the fact the Islanders are one of the worst possession teams in the NHL speaks to that. In the regular season, that was masked by great goaltending and hot shooting, but a downturn in either would spell doom for the squad. Lehner has just two career playoff games to his name, while Greiss has a dozen post-season appearances. How will Lehner, in particular, respond to the pressure?
Speaking of pressure, some of New York’s most important weapons began to struggle down the stretch. Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle started cold in March after combining for just 14 points in February. Across the final eight weeks of the season, the duo had 22 points in 46 combined games. Was the team’s luck beginning to dry up at the wrong time?
The Islanders have one of the NHL’s worst power plays, and they’re not strong on faceoffs. They’re middle-of-the-pack in penalty killing, but at least they don’t take many minors.
X-Factor: The Isles received permission to host first-round games at Nassau Coliseum, the old barn where the franchise won its dynasty Cups in the 1980s. In terms of crowd noise and enthusiasm, this is a big win for the team, which otherwise has played at the less-than-ideal-for-hockey Barclays Center in Brooklyn. On the other hand, since the Islanders have called both rinks their home this season, they may not get the same kind of home-ice advantage that comes with knowing the subtleties of a building inside and out – the way the puck bounces off the boards or glass, for example – that other teams will.
Pittsburgh’s biggest strength is the fact it still employs one of the best all-around players ever, Sidney Crosby. The captain and three-time Stanley Cup champion is having one of his most remarkable seasons yet, and that’s saying something. Crosby, at 31, is still putting up points, still dominating the faceoff circle and still shutting down the enemy’s top lines. Could he add a Selke Trophy to his overstuffed cabinet this summer?
Oh, and behind captain Crosby at center is another legendary pivot in Evgeni Malkin. The Pens also have young playoff wizards such as goalie Matt Murray and winger Jake Guentzel – both of whom become super-charged in the post-season. Murray has only lost one playoff series ever: last year, to the eventual champs from Washington.
Overall, the Penguins are chock full of experience thanks to two recent titles, and coach Mike Sullivan has proven himself to be the kind of thinker who can adapt when faced with a challenge and gets it done in crunch time behind the bench.
Injuries decimated the Pittsburgh blueline in the second half, and health must be a concern, starting with star defenseman Kris Letang. Due to a lack of depth, Pittsburgh traded for big but slow Erik Gudbranson at the deadline, but his game isn’t exactly tailored to the kind of pedal-to-the-metal hockey the Pens are known for. Jack Johnson is another veteran D-man who will have to prove the doubters wrong. Can this group hold the fort enough to allow the forwards to flourish?
While the Penguins have some decent depth up front, they are a top-heavy group. Crosby and Malkin can cover up a lot of deficiencies in that department with their play down the middle, but if the Penguins face a heavy, deeper crew (like Washington last year), it could be the death knell for a group that seems to be at the beginning of the end of its championship window.
X-Factor: Matt Murray has had quite the interesting year in net. In his first 10 appearances, he gave up four goals or more on seven occasions. He also had a concussion during that period and missed more action in November and December due to a lower-body injury. By mid-March, he was beginning to right the ship, having suffered only one regulation loss in nine starts between Feb. 23 and March 12. If Murray gets back to playoff form, he’ll be one of the biggest difference-makers in the league. But if the competition has finally figured out the 24-year-old, the Penguins will be sunk. Backup Casey DeSmith can’t carry the load.
Oct. 30, 2018 – NYI 6, PIT 3
Nov. 1, 2018 – NYI 3, PIT 2 (SO)
Dec. 6, 2018 – PIT 6, NYI 2
Dec. 10, 2018 – PIT 2, NYI 1 (SO)
Wednesday, April 10, 7:30 p.m.: Penguins at Islanders
Friday, April 12, 7:30 p.m.: Penguins at Islanders
Sunday, April 14, 12 p.m.: Islanders at Penguins
Tuesday, April 16, 7:30 p.m.: Islanders at Penguins
*Thursday, April 18, TBD: Penguins at Islanders
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Islanders at Penguins
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Penguins at Islanders
(All games listed in Eastern Time)
Fan Favorite: Pittsburgh Penguins
THN Series Pick: Pittsburgh Penguins in six