Just as we all surely predicted, one of the Eastern Conference finalists will be determined by a tete-a-tete between the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes. Both clubs had stunning first rounds, though for different reasons. The Islanders, who entered Round 1 with home ice on their side, retain the advantage in the second round after sweeping the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins out of the post-season. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes delivered a sizeable upset in the opening round, knocking off the defending champion Washington Capitals in a Game 7 double-overtime thriller. By doing so, Carolina ensured their first trip to the post-season in a decade wouldn’t be one-and-done. But do the Hurricanes have more to give or will New York continue their incredible turnaround season with a trip to the conference final?
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Whatever Mitch Korn is paid, it isn’t nearly enough. The goaltending guru, who followed coach Barry Trotz from Washington to New York, has worked his magic again with the Islanders, and it could very well be that his work with Robin Lehner this season is Korn’s pièce de résistance. Though Lehner had posted some stellar numbers at times in the past – back-to-back seasons with a .920 save percentage with the Buffalo Sabres, for instance – he’s taken his game to another level since arriving in New York in the off-season. The Vezina Trophy finalist turned in a brilliant regular season performance, complete with a .930 SP and 2.13 goals-against average, and then went out and bettered that in the first round against Sidney Crosby and Co. Lehner’s .956 SP and 1.37 GAA were game-stealing numbers, and his performance can be the ultimate difference maker in any series.
No team has ever won in the post-season without a bit of offense, though, which is to say Lehner is going to need some run support. He’s gotten exactly that from the Islanders’ one-two offensive punch of Mat Barzal and Jordan Eberle, too. The former didn’t score in his first post-season round, but he found the scoresheet with five assists. The latter made the most of his first trip to the playoffs since arriving in New York, scoring four goals and six points through four games. The Islanders also got three goals from each of Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson in the first round.
New York is going to need those cogs to keep the offensive wheel turning moving forward. While they’ve proven to be a defensively sound team and scored three-plus goals per game in the first round, the Islanders finished in the bottom-third of the NHL in regular season scoring. Lehner will do most of the work, but he’ll need New York to light the lamp when it matters.
X-Factor: Johnny Boychuk averaged nearly 19 minutes of ice time through the first three games against the Penguins before he was felled by a leg injury. He was a useful veteran hand that the Islanders will now be without. That puts an increased pressure on Scott Mayfield to get the job done in the top four, and we might also see more of Devon Toews than most would expect. The rookie blueliner played well this season, and Boychuk’s injury could allow him to take on a bigger role and step into the spotlight.
We didn’t call our shot, necessarily, but we did say that if any team had upset potential in the first round, it was the Hurricanes. Little did we know the first round would be the most upset-laden opening round in post-season history and that Carolina would only play a small part in that.
It’s time to start recognizing that these Hurricanes aren’t the scrappy underdogs they appear to be, though. This is a legitimately good team, one that has been playing well for the better part of four months and continues to piece together wins with strategy and systems play that makes the on-ice product far better than the expected sum of its parts. Case in point: who had Brock McGinn scoring a double-overtime winner in a Game 7? Who had Brett Pesce as a big-minute man on the blueline who would help the Hurricanes win the matchup game? And who had Petr Mrazek doing, well, much of anything given his recent history? Yet, from Jan. 1 onward, the Hurricanes have won exactly two-thirds of their games, 34 of 51 contests, and they’ve done so by playing a dogged possession game with one of the most underrated defensive corps in the entire NHL. It’s difficult to poke holes in a blueline that consists of Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk as its top-three.
That their big players were their big players in Game 7 against Washington should really put some wind in Carolina’s sails entering the second round. Sebastian Aho scored shorthanded, Teuvo Teravainen scored late in the second and Jordan Staal fired home the tying goal. Maybe they don’t have the same level of high-end skill as other clubs, but there are some very, very talented offensive players in the lineup.
X-Factor: Let’s be honest: the Hurricanes escaped the opening round despite mediocre goaltending. Through seven games, Mrazek posted an .899 SP and 2.54 GAA with three single-game performances that were sub-.880 SP. Was that good enough to squeak by the Capitals? Sure, but it’s no way to win consistently in the post-season. What the Hurricanes need is the Mrazek they saw over the final two months of the season. From Feb. 1 through to April 4, he posted a .938 SP in 17 appearances. If he can make the second round a goaltending duel, he greatly improves the Hurricanes’ chances of advancing.
Oct. 4, 2018 – NYI 2, CAR 1 (OT)
Oct. 28, 2018 – NYI 2, CAR 1
Nov. 24, 2018 – NYI 4, CAR 1
Jan. 8, 2019 – CAR 4, NYI 3
Fan Favorite: New York Islanders
THN Series Pick: New York Islanders in six
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