Islanders Defense Shutting Down Sidney Crosby

The New York Islanders took a 3-2 series lead on Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins thanks to a stellar 48-save performance by rookie goaltender Ilya Sorokin. The Isles didn’t play particularly well in Game 5; however, Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby, has mostly been kept off the scoresheet in this series, despite having the highest career point-per-game average against them in his career.

Entering the series, Crosby had 122 points (39 goals, 83 assists) in 75 career games against the Islanders, and during the regular season alone, he scored three goals and six assists in eight games. So, what’s caused one of the league’s top players from piling up points in this first-round series?

The Third & Fourth Lines

J.G. Pageau, Kyle Palmieri, and Oliver Wahlstrom are one of the favored matchups when Crosby is on the ice. According to Natural Stat Trick, the trio has accrued a 64% Corsi-for percent (CF%) when matched up against No. 87 and a high danger Corsi-for percent (HDCF%) of 71.43%. The Penguins’ top line of Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust has been limited to 31.82 CF% and 16.67% HDCF% against Pageau and co.

Another matchup that head coach Barry Trotz has liked to utilize is the Islanders’ fourth line against the Penguins’ first line on opening draws. In five games, Trotz has started the line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin on the first faceoff against Crosby, Guentzel, and Rust. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Isles’ fourth line has been one of their best in this series, keeping Crosby and co. out of the Islanders zone and pushing the puck into the offensive zone.

Casey Cizikas New York Islanders
Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That trend continued for both forward groups in Game 5, holding Crosby to just one point and two points in the series.

Cizikas has helped the fourth line retain the puck at a higher rate than Crosby’s line. The Isles’ fourth-line center is winning face-offs at a whopping 69.4% rate, or 55 of his last 72 draws in the playoffs. Uncharacteristically, Crosby is only winning draws at a 41.4% rate, below his career average of 52.7%.

Rob Rossi of The Athletic argued that Crosby’s “struggles on faceoffs continued and remain perplexing. He also doesn’t seem to be looking to shoot as much as usual with the Penguins’ scrapping to score goals. He’s judged against the highest standard, but such is the burden for one of the five greatest players in NHL history. Just being good, or fine, is not nearly enough for a player of Crosby’s stature” (from ‘Penguins report cards: Tristan Jarry gives away Game 5 against Islanders,’ The Athletic, 05/25/2021).

It’s easy to dismiss Crosby as not playing well in this series, but in fact, he’s doing the most he can against the toughest Islanders matchups, and the Isles are winning that battle.

Adam Pelech & Ryan Pulock

Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are the go-to defensive matchup when Crosby is on the ice. In Game 5, Pelech held him to a 30.43 CF%. When Trotz couldn’t get Pelech on the ice with Crosby, his CF% rose to 44.44.

In Game 5, Crosby’s HDCF% reached 71.43%. However, with Pelech on the ice, that number dropped to 16.67 HDCF%.

The Islanders’ top defensive pair deserves more recognition than they get. Although he might look lost at times, Pulock has stepped up in his own end and is equal to his D-partner in helping shut down the Penguins’ top player. Pulock has helped limit Crosby to 31.82 CF% while sharing a 16.67 HDCF% with Pelech.

Crosby has a 64.71 CF% in five games against the Islanders; however, when Pelech and Pulock are on the ice, his production dips to 31.12 CF%.

Josh Yohe of The Athletic argued that “Crosby has six points in his past 13 postseason games. For mere mortals, that number isn’t anything offensive. For Crosby, it’s a problem. He’s got two points in this series. In his past nine playoff games against the Islanders, he has three points. It’s a concern. Even though the Penguins are deeper than they’ve been in recent years, they still need Crosby and Malkin to carry them from time to time. I’m not sure that they can any longer,” (from ‘Yohe’s 10 observations: Tristan Jarry, an excruciating loss and assessing the Penguins’ chances in Game 6,’ The Athletic, 05/25/2021).

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The Islanders, although not perfect, are getting the job done when it comes to containing a known Isles killer. The Trotz system continues to be an effective grind that keeps the Penguins’ juggernauts off the scoresheet. Heading into Game 6, expect the fourth line and the Pelech-Pulock defensive pair to continue to ride Crosby and the Penguins’ top line, who has been limited to just six points in five games. Returning to Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders will try to close the door on the Penguins in another first-round series and advance to face the Boston Bruins.

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