The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders will do battle in the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, in the first postseason series between the two sides since 1987. The Flyers are the top seed in the East and the Islanders are the sixth, which might suggest New York as the underdog, but it looks more like a toss-up from here.
The Islanders finished nine points behind the Flyers this season with a game in hand, but they won all three meetings against them this season. The Blue and Orange also earned an emphatic five-game victory over the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, outscoring Alex Ovechkin’s squad 17-8. It took the Flyers a bit longer to put away the Montreal Canadiens in six games, giving them only two days off between rounds.
Since Barry Trotz was hired as head coach in 2018 — ironically, the same summer they lost John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Islanders have been more than the sum of their parts. This is their second-straight trip to the second round after they engineered a shocking sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019. The Islanders’ roster has a strong balance of skill and grit, speed and physicality, and a good mix of old and young. Here’s a look at what the Flyers are up against in Round 2.
Barzal’s Excellent Supporting Cast
The Islanders ranked a mediocre 23rd in goals scored this season, but they’ve found a new gear in the playoffs with 30 goals in 9 games, a mark bested by only Vancouver, Colorado and Calgary. There’s no question 23-year-old centre Mathew Barzal is the most explosive and skilled player on the roster — he can make anyone look silly — and he led the club in scoring with 60 points. But the Isles have built a strong group of scorers around him. He’s flanked by veteran wingers Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle, both of whom have impressive resumes in the NHL and have scored a lot of goals on slick passes from Barzal.
But it’s been New York’s second line carrying the mail in these playoffs. The trio of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey have combined for 26 points in 9 games. Beauvillier has been scoring with impunity with 6 goals, 3 of them game-winners, and he helped ice the Capitals with a pair in Game 5. Nelson has a short-handed goal and a game-winner among his seven points, and he’s dominated the face-off dot with a 57.7 percent success rate. Bailey, meanwhile, has emerged as a leader for the Islanders and his 10 points top the team in playoff scoring.
The Islanders’ bottom six offers even more skill in the likes of trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Derick Brassard, but also a ton of veteran toughness. The fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck have formed a heavy crash-and-bang line for years, and they’ve been known to drop their gloves a few times, too. Ross Johnston, who drew in for the injured Clutterbuck in Game 5, is a pure enforcer. And Leo Komarov is one of the league’s premier pests who can chirp you in almost any language.
The Flyers probably have a little more scoring depth than the Islanders — they scored 40 more goals in the regular season — and they added some grit down the middle at the trade deadline by picking up Nate Thompson and Derek Grant.
Isles’ Unheralded Defense Gets the Job Done
New York doesn’t have a star-studded blue line, but it’s a workmanlike group that helped the team finish in the top 10 for fewest goals allowed in the regular season. Trotz spreads the ice time out quite well, with only five minutes a game separating the most and least-used defenders in 2019-20.
Each pair has a good balance of offense and defense, led by Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. Pulock has blossomed into the Islanders’ best defenseman and he was on pace for more than 40 points when the season was interrupted. His cannon of a shot is a big weapon on the top power-play unit and he kills penalties as well. Pelech is a pure shutdown defender who is heavily relied upon on the penalty kill. His 6-foot-3 frame certainly helps him clear the front of the net.
The pair of Devon Toews and Scott Mayfield gets about the same amount of ice as Nick Leddy and Andy Greene. The latter two haven’t been on the ice for a single even-strength goal against in these playoffs, with Greene doing a strong job of filling in for the injured Johnny Boychuk. Leddy doesn’t put up the offensive numbers he used to, but he does a bit of everything for the Islanders and is a veteran of 89 playoff games.
Toews, who the Isles drafted with a pick acquired from Philly, was late to break into the NHL but is emerging as a talented offensive defenseman. He got more power-play ice time this season than anyone, even Pulock. Mayfield makes up the defense-minded half of that pairing and gets a ton of penalty kill time alongside Pelech. The Islanders might also get Boychuk back for this series.
The bottom line for the Islanders’ defense corps is this: Semyon Varlamov hasn’t faced 30 or more shots a single time in these playoffs.
The Flyers play a similarly stingy defensive game, allowing only three more goals than the Islanders did in 2019-20. Philadelphia’s defence is a little younger, but both teams have only two defenders over 30.
Varlamov vs. Hart: Goaltending a Big Factor
Varlamov had a solid regular season, matching Carter Hart’s .914 save percentage (SV%) with a 2.62 goals-against average (GAA), but he has been exceptional in the postseason. The team in front of him ensures he doesn’t have a heavy workload, but Varlamov has held up his end of the bargain too with a .934 SV% and a 1.67 GAA. In nine games, he’s only given up three goals twice and finished the Capitals series with a shutout in Game 5.
The Islanders platooned starts between Varlamov and Thomas Greiss this season, and the German backup isn’t a bad option, either, if Trotz has to turn to him. Greiss is only one year removed from posting a top-five save percentage in the league.
We saw some good and bad from Hart against the Canadiens, but more of the good. He frustrated them to no end in Games 3 and 4 with back-to-back shutouts, a huge factor in the Flyers taking a stranglehold on the series. But he allowed four goals apiece in two other games. This series could definitely be decided by the play of the two puck-stoppers.
Behind the benches, Trotz and Vigneault are both veteran coaches with a lot of success in the NHL. You can be sure they’ll have their boys ready to go Monday night. The Flyers have their work cut out for them, but no one ever said winning the Stanley Cup was easy.