Examining the Islanders Potential First-Round Opponents

The New York Islanders punched their ticket to the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs with their victory over the New York Rangers on May 1. The remaining four games of the regular season will determine their first-round matchup, an uphill battle regardless of the opponent. Here are the three possible teams.

Pittsburgh Penguins

For the first time in a couple of seasons, the Penguins were a problem for the Islanders. Since they swept Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs, the Islanders had a fairly good run against their Metropolitan or MassMutual East Division rivals. This season, though, the Islanders lost the series 2-4-2, which doesn’t bode well if this winds up being the first-round matchup.

The Penguins also scored the most goals per game against the Islanders this season – 3.25 per-game average – of any team in the division and scored the most against them with 26 goals in eight games. The Penguins also held the Islanders to the second-fewest goals per game at 2.38, allowing just 19 goals in their eight-game series against the Islanders. The Washington Captials were the only team to defend the Islanders better, allowing just 2.25 goals-against per game.

If those stats don’t worry you, the Penguins have been playing great lately, catapulting up the standings to now rank first place in the division. The kicker? They did this without Evgeni Malkin, who made his return to the lineup this week, just in time to get a few games in before the playoffs. Without Malkin, Sidney Crosby (24 goals), Jake Guentzel (23 goals), and Bryan Rust (22 goals) carried the mail offensively.

However, despite the wins, the Penguins’ goaltending hasn’t been anything to write home about this season. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have a .912 and .913 save percentage, respectively, and sport a 2.67 and 2.42 goals-against average. Hopefully, the Islanders can regain their 2019 Playoff magic against this experienced Penguins squad.

Washington Capitals

Though the Capitals ultimately got the better of the Islanders in the season series, recording a 2-5-1 record, it was a see-saw matchup from beginning to end. Three games were won 1-0 while others were barn-burners, featuring six and eight-goal outbursts. In total, the Islanders went against the Capitals this season. The Islanders should have some concerns about their play against a team they beat 4-1 in last season’s first round.

Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin 700 goals
Washington Capitals have been a thorn in the New York Islanders’ side this season.
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Aside from their 8-4 victory on April Fools Day, New York has struggled to score goals against the Capitals, a surprise considering both of Washington’s goaltenders haven’t played very well this season with save percentages below .910 and goals-against averages around 2.70. The Islanders were held to one or no goals in half of the games, a fate they’ve been handed 14 times this season.

The Capitals retooled a little this offseason, then added an important piece, Anthony Mantha, at the trade deadline and have looked good ever since, even with superstar Alex Ovechkin in and out of the lineup. The Islanders have looked gassed recently, dropping three straight games to non-playoff teams. To win this series, they would need to come out with the pedal to the floor. An uphill battle indeed. 

Boston Bruins

They may end up in third place in the East, but the Bruins could be the favorite and the most feared team heading into the postseason. A healthy lineup and the deadline addition of Taylor Hall – six goals and six assists in 12 games – has proved difficult for the rest of the division to handle. Hall has turned his season around in a big way, and his confidence is back after a shaky two seasons following his MVP performance in 2017-18 with the New Jersey Devils.

Despite the recent flukey losses to the Devils, they are a deep team that boasts much more than the “Perfection Line” of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrňák. And, don’t forget about the goaltending. Not only do they have Tuuka Rask and a capable backup in former Islander Jaroslav Halak, but 22-year-old Jeremy Swayman has also had a heck of a start to his NHL career. In his first nine games, he’s recorded two shutouts, a .946 save percentage, and 1.44 goals-against average. It’s a small sample size, but a hot goalie can get any team through a round or two. The Islanders held the advantage in the season series overall at 5-2-0 with one game remaining next week, but the Bruins got the better of the Islanders the last two games, holding the Islanders to just one goal in two games.

This season has been a grind for every team, and the Islanders are no exception. They’ve been in a slump since the middle of the shortened season, with their goaltenders buoying the team through their ups and downs. Many of their core forwards have hit a cold spell, and unless they can heat up, they’ll be hitting the golf course early.

Want more Islanders content? Check out the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast, hosted by The Hockey Writers authors James Nichols and Jon Zella. Follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts!