Islanders Face a New & Incredibly Tough East Division in 2020-21

The 2020-21 NHL regular season is certainly going to be different. The season will be not only 56 games, but each team will only play the seven other teams in the new realignment of the divisions. For the New York Islanders, after a run to the Eastern Conference Final, they find themselves in a very tough division. Let’s take a look at the teams they will face this season and the storylines for some of those games.

New York Rangers

Regardless of where these two teams are in the standings, when the Islanders play the New York Rangers, there is always a bit extra on the line. Not only will these teams play eight times this year, but they will open their season with two games at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 14 and 16. These two teams will see each other again less than a month later before the Islanders face the Rangers five times in the final 16 games of the season.

The Islanders had beaten their crosstown rival 11 of 12 times from 2015 to 2018, but the Rangers won three of the four matchups last season. This year will feature two of the top rookie goaltenders in Ilya Sorokin for the Islanders and Igor Shesterkin for the Rangers. Shesterkin played in 12 games last season but is still considered a rookie. Both these netminders should be front runners for the Calder Trophy in 2020-21.

Igor Shesterkin/Shestyorkin New York Rangers
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Islanders will also get their first look at Alexis Lafreniere, the Rangers’ top draft pick in 2020. He will be joining a team with two of the premier players in the league in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. It will be extremely interesting to see who the Rangers play together on the top line and what trio head coach Barry Trotz will turn to neutralize them.

New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils come into the 2020-21 season as only one of two teams in the division to not make the playoffs last year. The Devils have gone through a rebuilding phase with many young players after the departure of Taylor Hall. New Jersey will be the Islanders’ opponent in the fourth and fifth games of the season, as well as in the last two regular-season games at the Coliseum on Long Island.

A season ago, the Islanders had two of their four games cancelled against the Devils due to COVID-19. Anders Lee scored his first career overtime goal in their lone victory last year, but the Islanders had swept the season series against the Devils in 2018-19. New Jersey, though, should get better goaltending this season as Mackenzie Blackwood has turned himself into a capable starter in the league and will be backed up by veteran Corey Crawford.

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There is also a chance that Cory Schneider can get a chance to face his old team at some point as the long time Devil signed with the Islanders in the offseason and could likely see himself on the taxi squad this year.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Islanders are only two years removed from their dominant sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins bring back most of the same team they have had for the past half-decade with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. Pittsburgh’s only significant departure is Matt Murray, as they traded their former starting netminder to the Ottawa Senators in October. Tristan Jarry should see the bulk of the work in net.

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

While this matchup was one-sided earlier in the decade, New York has had much more success against Pittsburgh in recent years. Brock Nelson capped off a pair of games last year against the Penguins with overtime goals. The Islanders will have to wait until Feb. 6 to play the Penguins but will complete their entire season series by the end of March. The Islanders’ fourth line consisting of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck will have their hands full, as they usually play against the Crosby line.

Philadelphia Flyers

After an epic seven-game series in the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers will see each other eight times as they renew their rivalry from the 1980s. While the Islanders won the series thanks to phenomenal goaltending from both Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, Philadelphia had a knack for the clutch goal as they won all three of their games in overtime. New York will be without Greiss this year as the longtime Islander signed with the Detroit Red Wings.

These teams met three times in the regular season last year, and New York won all three meetings. That also came with Brian Elliott getting the starts in two of the three games as Carter Hart has taken over as the starting goaltender. The Flyers did very little in the offseason as they keep their core in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier.

Carter Hart Sean Couturier Philadelphia Flyers
Carter Hart Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While both teams have high-powered offenses, it will be interesting to see who will win the matchup defensively. New York scored at least four goals in all three regular-season matchups and at least three goals in all seven playoff games. Both defenses also tend to contribute offensively as Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock lead the Islanders compared to the Flyers, who have Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim.

Boston Bruins

If there has been a team that the Islanders have struggled against in recent years, it has been the Boston Bruins. They have been one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, though New York beat them in a shootout last season. However, Boston had won the other five matchups between the two teams in the previous two seasons and had a plus-12 goal differential against New York.

Brad Marchand Boston Bruins
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Bruins play a lot like the Islanders would like to with their solid goaltending and defense and All-Star forwards in David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. The Bruins will likely come in as the favorite to win the East Division despite their surprising second-round exit in the 2020 playoffs. They will be without Torey Krug, who signed with the St. Louis Blues, and Zdeno Chara, who signed with the Capitals. The Bruins will lean on young defenseman Charlie McAvoy even more in this upcoming season.

Buffalo Sabres

Between all of the first-round picks the Buffalo Sabres have had, it is stunning that they have yet to be able to break through. Expectations were extremely high for them last season, and even in an expanded playoff field, they did not make the postseason. They will come into the East Division with the Devils, with both having not played since March. 

The Sabres, though, did add quite a bit of talent with Hall and Eric Staal. They already have Jack Eichel and have many young forwards along with Rasmus Dahlin on the blue line. One area New York needs to take advantage of is the Sabres goaltending. They come into the season with Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. Hutton struggled most of last season, which may allow Ullmark to get most of the starts. 

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With all of these talented teams, it’s going to make it a rough season for the Islanders. However, they have proven that they are a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. With a little over two weeks to the start of the season, it will be interesting to see if New York makes any more moves to bolster their team.

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