Pittsburgh Penguins (3) at New York Islanders (2)
Regular Season Record: Pittsburgh 44-26-12 (100 points) New York 48-27-7 (103 points)
Head to Head Record: Pittsburgh 2 Wins New York 2 Wins Average score Pittsburgh 3.25 – New York 3.
Sorry for offending any Pittsburgh fans, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are the New England Patriots of the NHL. The Penguins are a definitive example of running a professional sports franchise. The Penguins sustained excellence for the last decade, capturing three Stanley Cup titles along the way. The Penguins finished third in the Metropolitan Division, but do not underestimate this club’s ability to advance to the Cup finals. The five-time Stanley Cup champions are prepared for a deep run in this year’s playoffs.
The Penguins face an upstart New York Islanders team coached by Barry Trotz. The veteran coach managed the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup last year. The Islanders benefited from Trotz and the Caps failure to agree on a contract, snapping him up in the offseason. New York is one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season going from 80 to 104 overall points for the campaign. The Isles employ one of the top goaltending tandems in the NHL with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. The club needs the two netminders to step up against the Penguins to advance to the second round.
Sidney Crosby is the focal point any debate about the current Penguins squad. Crosby, a dominant top 5 player in the league, may win a third Hart Memorial trophy for most valuable player. Crosby might be the most recognizable player in the NHL, but his goal scoring was eclipsed this season by Jake Guentzel who put the biscuit in the basket 38 times this season. Phil Kessel, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist all sent the puck home in double digits on the year. The Penguins are loaded with offensive talent and I still have not mentioned Evgeni Malkin, who has been out of the lineup the later part of March. The Russian is a rare player combining scoring ability with toughness on ice. The Pens are a battle tested, veteran team biding their time getting ready for another playoff run.
The Islanders are not synonymous with goal scoring on the year. The team enters the playoffs notching only 223 scores in 2018-19. The 2.72 goals per game is lowest of the teams heading into the Eastern Conference playoffs. Anders Lee tallied the highest goals scored with 28 for the Isles to go along with his 23 assists. Mathew Barzal followed up a Rookie of the Year performance with 18 goals and 44 assists making him the high point man on the team. Victor Filppula and Brock Nelson contribute nightly to the Islanders cause but cannot be counted on to score consistently enough to ride to a series win.
Maybe it’s because the Pens have been in the NHL spotlight for so long even their defensemen have gained some notoriety. Typically toiling in the less glamorous role of bruising opponents trying to break through their line- Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta are well-known hockey players. Letang is the key to holding down opponents’ scorers and his absence was a glaring hole for the Pens while he sat out with a lower body injury. Maatta has also been out, but both are expected to be ready for the playoffs.
The efficient Pens defense allowed the tenth least high danger goals in the NHL this season and should be enough to counter an anemic Islanders offense.
The Islanders bring a smothering defense to the ice this series. Only three teams allowed less high danger goals during the 2018-19 season. Johnny Boychuk is the best of the Islanders defenseman and recently returned from injury. Scott Mayfield and Ryan Pulock wear black and blue spots across their body as they both got parallel with the ice to keep the puck from getting past them over 145 times. An underrated aspect of the Islanders is their frontline’s ability to dish out some punishment as Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, and Leo Komarov each accounted for over 200 hits on the opposite side.
Matt Murray is a standout goalie who previously backstopped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup. Murray started this season slow, but rounded into form the last month of the season. Even while getting off to a slow start, Murray still sports a 2.21 GAA and is saving 15 goals above average. When Murray needs a rest, Casey DeSmith is a more than capable backup. With stats similar to Murray’s, DeSmith can shut down opponent’s goal scorers with little issue. Penguins fans should feel confident with these goalies in the crease- they will be hard to beat 4 times in a 7-game series.
Robin Lehner or Thomas Greiss. Thomas Greiss or Robin Lehner. Take your pick on who turned in the most dominate performance in front of the net for the Islanders. Lehner allowed only 2.13 goals to get past him during his 46 games. Greiss was not far behind with 2.28 GAA, both in the top 5 of backstops who received significant playing time on the ice. Goals against average may not be analytical enough for some- so let’s check the goals saved above average for a better indication of how superior this tandem was the past 82 games. Lehner is 3rd in the league with 26.16 GSAA and Greiss checks in at number 5 with 19.73. No matter how anyone looks at it, this pair is rivaled only by the Ben Bishop/Anton Khudobin pairing in Dallas. Regardless of who starts (most likely Lehnar), the Islanders hold an advantage in the net against the Pens.
What a matchup between the two teams! They played four times this year but have not met on ice since December 10th. Trotz coached a team to the Stanley Cup last year, but the Penguins are led by Mike Sullivan who was the Cup winning manager for the prior two seasons. The goalies are excellent, and the defenses are deep, talented squads. The difference between the dynastic Penguins and overachieving Islanders will be the frontlines. New York simply cannot put enough talent on the ice up front to beat the Penguins in a 7-game series. Crosby, Malkin and their supporting cast advance to the second round, winning the sixth game in the Steel City.
Current Line as of 4/7:
New York +115