The New York Islanders defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in four of the six games to advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with hopes of hoisting the Cup for the first time since the 1982-83 NHL season. The team played great in all facets of the game, and as a result, were able to pull off the upset and eliminate the Penguins, who had the top record in the MassMutual East Division. There were a handful of skaters as well as line shifts that stepped up for the Islanders that helped fuel the upset and multiple wins in the series, while others only continued their brilliance to help the team’s great play on both ends of the ice.
Ilya Sorokin: A+
Ilya Sorokin was the star of the series for the Islanders, winning all four of his starts to help the team advance with incredible goaltending in the process. Sorokin posted a .943 save percentage and a 1.95 goals-against average in the series, but more importantly, was able to limit the Penguins offense, which scored 3.45 goals per game in the regular season and was constantly firing shots on the net. Moreover, the 25-year-old goaltender was unfazed by the pressure and would bend at times, allowing the occasional goal, but wouldn’t break, keeping the Islanders in every game he started.
The highlight of the series for Sorokin was Game 5, where the young goaltender saved 48 of 50 shots to help the Islanders win the game in double overtime. In the game, Sorokin allowed a power-play goal and a shot from the point to score but otherwise was able to constantly break up easy scoring opportunities for the Penguins and lead the team to victory. The Game 5 performance, along with the incredible play throughout the series, will likely force head coach Barry Trotz to keep the 25-year-old goaltender in the net for the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as he can potentially lead the team to the Final.
Brock Nelson – Josh Bailey – Anthony Beauvillier: A+
If there was any shift that could be credited for winning the series for the Islanders, it would have to be the forward line of Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier. The trio was able to score nine goals against the Penguins and provide a leading scoring presence when the top line was failing to do so. Bailey was struggling to find the back of the net, scoring only eight goals in the regular season, but in the First Round, he found the back of the net three times, including the game-winner in double overtime in Game 5, giving the Islanders a 3-2 series lead to help flip the momentum for the team in the process.
In Game 6, the shift was able to score three goals with great puck movement and effective play through the neutral zone. Nelson found the back of the net twice to lead the Islanders in goals for the game, while Beauvillier was able to elevate a puck into the net on an odd-man rush. While Bailey didn’t score in the series-clinching game, he distributed two assists, including an incredible cross-ice pass to find Nelson with an easy shot on goal. The hope is that the forward line can continue to provide a scoring presence for the Islanders, considering how their opponents will oftentimes eliminate the top line, forcing the backend of the unit to win the games.
Kyle Palmieri – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Oliver Wahlstrom: A
The third line was able to boost the backend of the forwards unit and help fuel the series victory. Game 1 particularly saw this trio take over the game and help fuel the victory, with Kyle Palmieri leading the way with two goals, including the game-winner in overtime. Aside from the opening game, the Islanders were able to rely on the shift to provide a scoring presence or apply pressure on the Penguins’ defense with quick shots on the net and strong play in the offensive zone. While Oliver Wahlstrom missed Game 6 with an undisclosed injury, the 20-year-old forward was unfazed by the pressure in the five games he played, scoring a goal and distributing two assists. The Islanders’ offense struggled throughout the regular season, scoring only 2.71 goals per game, but with the later lines stepping up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the unit has suddenly become a tough one to defend.
Ryan Pulock – Adam Pelech A-
The Islanders’ top defensive pairing was able to effectively eliminate the Penguins’ top line, which scored 69 goals in the regular season but only found the back of the net four times in the first round, as well as the entire offense, which averaged 3.45 goals per game. The duo had a few instances where they made mistakes that resulted in goals, including the Game 2 opening goal where Ryan Pulock mishandled the puck at the blue line, resulting in an easy scoring opportunity. However, for the majority of the series, the duo of Adam Pelech and Pulock were able to eliminate their opponents’ ability to establish a scoring presence with disciplined play from the point, the ability to cut off angles in the neutral zone, or creating turnovers to start up the offense for the team.
Pulock was also able to help on the offensive end of the ice with a few great slap shots from the point. Pulock scored two goals in the first round, including the go-ahead goal on a faceoff win with a hard shot from the point in Game 6, ultimately allowing the Islanders to defeat the Penguins in the game and series. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a scoring presence from the point is often a difference-maker within close games as the scoring opportunities are tougher to find, and a great shot on the net can create those additional opportunities, and the Islanders will hope that their 26-year-old defenseman is to continue to send pucks to the net.
Jordan Eberle B+
Jordan Eberle has been a constant scoring presence for the Islanders throughout this season, scoring 16 goals in the regular season. Playing along the top line with Mathew Barzal, the top line struggled to create the same offensive presence since Ander Lee suffered a season-ending injury and the lack of production rolled into the first round against the Penguins. While the top line struggled in the series, Eberle was still able to find the back of the net and remind everyone of his goal-scoring instincts. The 30-year-old veteran forward was able to score two goals and give the offense an assist as well. The key moment in the series was when he scored the game-tying goal for the Islanders in the third period of Game 5 when Leo Komarov centered a pass to the top-line forward who found the back of the net to help the team eventually win in double overtime.
Scott Mayfield – Nick Leddy B
Game 3 was a game to forget for the defensive pairing as they constantly allowed the Penguins to skate through the duo on odd-man rushes and crash the net to find plenty of scoring opportunities, resulting in many of their opponents’ goals and a 5-4 defeat that gave the Penguins the series lead at the time. However, Scott Mayfield and Nick Leddy played great the rest of the series, constantly stopping the dynamic offense and keeping goals to a minimum. Moreover, the play from the defensive duo allowed the Islanders to have a strong defense throughout the unit as they have all season, with the Islanders only allowing 2.23 goals per game.
In addition to the strong play on the defensive end of the ice, Mayfield and Leddy were able to create on the offensive end as well, helping open up the offense and find scoring opportunities where there otherwise wouldn’t have been any. The duo has been known for their offensive play all season, combining for 46 points and being regarded as the scoring defensemen for the Islanders. The first round was no exception as Mayfield scored a goal and contributed three assists, and Leddy added two assists as well. The play from the Islanders defensemen on both ends of the ice will continue to be vital for the team’s success as they will continue to face great defenses and goaltending that will require dynamic play from the point.
Andy Greene – Noah Dobson B-
The third Islanders’ defensive pairing needed to have a strong series for the team to be successful, considering how their opponents’ offense had a great top line and could find goals on the backend, as well. The duo of Andy Greene and Noah Dobson struggled at times allowing open shots or misplaying a skater around the net to allow them to score. However, for the majority of the series, Greene and Dobson were able to block shots in front of the net or create turnovers to help keep the Penguins from finding their rhythm offensively. The duo only contributed two points on the offensive end of the ice, but what gave the Islanders the advantage in the series was the play from all three defensive pairings, and the third pairing was able to provide that element, limiting their opponents’ ability to establish a scoring presence in the offensive zone.
Mathew Barzal – Leo Komarov B-
The top line for the Islanders was a non-factor the majority of the series, constantly being eliminated by the Penguins’ top skaters and finding few opportunities to create offensively. While Barzal had 17 goals in the regular season, second-most on the team behind only Nelson, he failed to find the back of the net in the entire series. Barzal, however, was able to establish strong passing for the top line, as the opponent would often direct their focus to him, allowing other skaters on the ice to find scoring chances, allowing the top line scorer to contribute three assists for the Islanders in the first round.
Leo Komarov, on the other hand, has struggled throughout the season, only scoring one goal in the 33 games he played but played a significant role in the first round against the Penguins. While failing to help generate offense on the top line, the 34-year-old forward was able to constantly apply pressure in the offensive zone and create turnovers with the forecheck and strong play along the boards. The highlight of the aggressive play came in Game 5 when the Islanders sent the puck into the offensive zone, where Komarov stole the puck and centered it to Jordan Eberle to tie the game in the third period.
Cal Clutterbuck B-
As part of the fourth line Cal Clutterbuck wasn’t able to generate much of an offensive presence in this series rather was more effective on the forecheck and creating turnovers against a Penguins offense that was uncomfortable throughout in the majority of the games played. Despite the offensive struggles, Clutterbuck still had a great performance in Game 3, scoring twice in the 5-4 loss to keep the Islanders in the game and nearly win it as well. While the Islanders didn’t rely on the veteran 33-year-old scorer in the recent series, the team will need offensive production in the upcoming series as they will face a defense that can eliminate the primary scoring lines.
Semyon Varlamov C+
This was a series that Semyon Varlamov would like to forget, losing both of his starts and constantly allowing the Penguins to find the back of the net. After missing Game 1 to injury, the veteran goaltender was ready to continue the great play from the regular season, but the result was anything but that. Game 2 wasn’t a bad performance as the veteran goaltender saved 43 of 45 shots to only lose the game 2-1 with the offense failing to find the back of the net throughout the game. Game 3, however, was a disaster, as Varlamov allowed five goals on only 27 shots, with the Penguins’ offense constantly finding open shots on the net, resulting in a 5-4 loss. With a 3.61 Goals Against Average in the two starts, the 33-year-old goaltender was replaced for the remainder of the series and possibly for the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Varlamov was a phenomenal goaltender the entire season and arguably the Islanders’ best player with a .929 save percentage and a 2.04 goals-against average, leading the team to the playoffs. Unfortunately, consecutive losses in the first round forced the coaching staff to place him on the bench, and the great starts from the younger Ilya Sorokin will make it harder for Varlamov to return to the starting role. It’s unclear whether the 33-year-old goaltender will start again in the playoffs, but the team can rely on him if need be, a great luxury of possessing one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL.
Casey Cizikas – Matt Martin C+
Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin were both invisible for the fourth line offensively. Along with Cal Clutterbuck, the forward line only contributed three points, with Cizikas adding an assist and Martin failing to add a point to the unit. The line was able to play great defense, which was crucial in the series against the Penguins as they played great on both the forecheck and backcheck and constantly force turnovers against a great offense. Moreover, Martin would often provide some hard hits along the boards and allowed the Islanders to play tough hockey to help control the series. The team might have been able to advance to the next round without an offensive presence from the fourth line, but in the upcoming series, scoring on the backend will be pivotal, and the shift is going to have to step up.
What The Islanders Should Expect Against the Bruins
The Bruins are a great team and arguably one of the more complete teams in the NHL, possessing great play on both ends of the ice. Like the Penguins, they possess an incredible top line with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand to go alongside a strong backend of their offense. Unlike the Penguins, the Islanders’ next opponent has a defense that is able to eliminate any offense with their speed and two-way play, led by one of the best young defensemen in the game in Charlie McAvoy. Islanders are going to have to play great against the Bruins throughout their lineup to advance to the next round and hopefully continue to find goals throughout the forward unit. Ultimately, the series should be a great one to watch between two well-built teams the match up well against one another.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.