On Sunday, the New York Islanders won a thrilling Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3 in overtime, with Kyle Palmieri firing a top-shelf shot past Tristan Jarry for the game-winning goal. The importance of depth was on clear display throughout the game, but more importantly for head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders need to keep the game under a comfortable pace and constantly make adjustments to keep control of the action. This series is going to be defined by which team is able to play their style of hockey and, specifically, whether the pace of play is speed-based with plenty of open ice, or a defensive game with tough play along the boards and few scoring chances.
The Islanders Thrive in the Physical Game
Throughout this season, it has been evident that the Islanders are a defensive team – they allow only 2.23 goals per game, a mark that is among the best in the NHL. During Game 1, the team was reminded that to succeed they must not only play a defensive game, but force their opponent to adapt to a more physical game, with goals being a rare commodity.
While the Islanders won the first game, 4-3, a high-scoring game, especially by playoff standards, the team was at its best when the game slowed down and they forced the Penguins to chip and chase rather than carry the puck through the neutral zone, limiting the speed of their opposition as thus their greatest asset. Likewise, the physical game played to the advantage of the defensemen with Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and the entire unit being able to constantly create turnovers and keep the puck out of their opponent’s possession.
The Islanders were able to find scoring opportunities when the teams allowed one another to skate through the zone and find space, and it’s understandable to see why the team would want to play aggressively considering they were able to find offensive production as a result. The problem is that when the Islanders played aggressively, they allowed plenty of opportunities the other way and the Penguins were in control of the game. For the upcoming games in the series, it will be pivotal to avoid allowing the Penguins, a team that won six of the eight regular-season meetings, to find open ice and scoring opportunities, as the momentum will instantly swing in their favor.
The Penguins Take Advantage When the Game Speeds Up
The Penguins have arguably the best top line in the NHL with Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel all scoring at least 20 goals this season. The line has been particularly effective on odd-man rushes and pushing the puck through the neutral zone, allowing the talented skaters to take advantage of their speed and find open ice. Moreover, the entire Penguins offense benefits from open ice – they were able to earn the top record in the East Division in large part because of the speed the team possesses throughout the lineup.
The first game of the series was only a testament to the Penguins’ ability to capitalize in open ice and specifically when they could carry the puck through the neutral zone. The Islanders surrendered consecutive goals as a result of the game opening up, allowing Penguins forward Frederick Gaudreau to hit a shot from the point into the back of the net and defenseman Brian Dumoulin to fire an open shot from the point that Crosby was able to redirect into the net.
In addition, the game-tying goal was surrendered in a large part as a consequence of the Islanders allowing their opponent to successfully skate through the neutral zone with the puck rather than chip it into the zone, finding an open shot on goal as a result. The first game could have easily gone either way and making the opponent uncomfortable will be crucial for the entire series.
Tristan Jarry Must Continue to Be Tested
Of the four goals the Islanders scored, two of them slipped past Tristan Jarry on the glove-side top-shelf while another goal zipped past the 25-year-old goaltender but underneath the glove. The goals might be regarded as a referendum on Jarry, who was whiffing on shots to the glove side, but the significance of the goals is that the Islanders know they can continue to test the 25-year-old goaltender and force him to make difficult saves – considering that backup Casey DeSmith might not be healthy for the series, the offense must take advantage.
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When trying to generate offense, the Islanders must be aware of the ability to get shots to the net while establishing the offensive zone, allowing the team to slow down the game while also having the defensemen prepared at the point for the potential counter-attack from the Penguins.
The other major takeaway from the goaltending performance from both Jarry and the young Ilya Sorokin (who started his first playoff game at 25 years old) is that the Islanders can win goaltending duels. If games become defensive and are ultimately determined by which team has a better goaltender in the net, the Islanders have the clear advantage regardless of Sorokin or the typical starter in Semyon Varlamov, who was scratched for the game but is likely going to start the remainder of the series. Knowing this, the coaching staff will want the upcoming games to ultimately be determined by the better goaltender, which is once again, favorable to New York.
How the Islanders Need to Play the Rest of the Series
It was clear throughout the game that the Islanders needed to improve defensively, specifically in the neutral zone. The shots from the point can easily be regarded as a compromise considering all the more prominent ways the Penguins can score should be eliminated first. The Islanders won’t win this series by outskating their opponent and should play with that in mind, indicating that if the offense is going to continue finding the back of the net, the play from the point will need to improve and be a major factor moving forward. In addition, the depth of the team will need to continue to play well to help pull off the upset, with Palmieri being a pleasant surprise in the first game as well as the entire third line, but the rest of the offense should hopefully step up in the offensive zone in the upcoming games.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink has written for multiple sports blogs and platforms covering the NHL, NFL, MLB, and college sports.