For the second time in three years, the New York Islanders will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs. The Islanders swept the series back in 2019 and are 4-1 lifetime in the postseason against Pittsburgh. The Penguins, though, come in as the top seed in the East Division and earned wins in six of the eight games against the Islanders this season. As the two teams had roughly a week of practice before Game 1, let’s take a look at the matchup.
Players to Watch
Both the Islanders and the Penguins have plenty of star power. For New York, it is going to be interesting to see how their first line does. Mat Barzal finished second on the teams in goals with 17 and first in points with 45. Brock Nelson scored 18 goals to lead the team. Jordan Eberle, who has been sensational in the playoffs since coming to the Islanders, scored 16 goals on Barzal’s wing.
After Anders Lee suffered a season-ending injury, New York had to replace their captain. Leo Komarov has gotten the latest chance and is likely to play with Barzal and Eberle to start the playoffs. The Islanders brought in Kyle Palmieri to potentially fill the void left behind by Lee, but he has only scored two goals since being acquired. Travis Zajac also came in the deal and has seen himself in and out of the lineup. The Islanders also continued to play terrific defense in front of their netminder. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech have blossomed into one of the top pairings in the NHL. Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield have gained chemistry throughout the season, and young Noah Dobson has settled into the lineup with veteran Andy Greene on the third pairing.
Anytime a team faces the Penguins, they will always be tested facing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby led the team in goals and assists, as Malkin, despite only playing 33 games, had eight goals and 20 assists. However, a large part of their success offensively has been their ability to get secondary scoring.
Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust each reached the 20 goal mark, while Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen combined for 25 goals. Their biggest surprise has been the production they have received from Jeff Carter since he was dealt to Pittsburgh at the deadline. After scoring only eight goals in 40 games with the Los Angeles Kings, Carter finished the season with nine goals in 14 games, highlighted by a four-goal performance against the Buffalo Sabres.
Defensively, Kris Letang is a possible candidate for the Norris Trophy. Despite coming in as a potential seventh defenseman, Cody Ceci has been fantastic in his first season with the Penguins, as he is tied for second on the team in plus-minus with Brian Dumoulin. Mike Matheson, John Marino, and Marcus Pettersson round out a talented defensive core for Pittsburgh.
With perhaps a bit more starts this season, Semyon Varlamov could have put himself into position as a potential Vezina Trophy winner. While splitting time with Ilya Sorokin for most of the season, Varlamov is the clear number one heading into the postseason. He went 19-11-4 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, ranking in the top five in the NHL. He also tied for first in the NHL with Philipp Grubauer with seven shutouts.
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However, he struggled a bit this season against the Penguins. He made five starts against them and only picked up one win, which came in the season’s first game (Sorokin recorded a shutout in the other Islanders’ win). The veteran netminder left the team’s final regular-season game with an injury on Monday against the Buffalo Sabres but is expected to be ready to start the series.
For Pittsburgh, Tristan Jarry had a strong past two months as the Penguins’ starting goaltender. His season’s best performance against the Islanders came in a 4-1 win on Feb. 18 when he stopped 31 of 32 shots. He also made 33 saves in his next start versus New York and registered five of his 25 wins against the Islanders.
There will be something that has to give in the series as the Islanders come in with one of the top penalty kills in the league compared to the Penguins lethal power play. The Islanders held the Penguins to under ten percent this season with the man advantage, but Pittsburgh ranks fourth in the league with the man advantage at 23.7 percent. The Islanders’ power play, which struggled throughout the season, saw a bit of success against Pittsburgh. New York scored nine goals on the man advantage and registered a pair of goals twice against the Penguins. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill ranks 27th in the league at 77.4 percent.
Another area the Islanders can try and take advantage of is on the faceoffs. In the season series, New York won 53.7 percent of the draws and can certainly take advantage of that on special teams. The Islanders’ fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck, who typically see time against the opposition’s top line, will all be counted on down a man along with Brock Nelson, Leo Komarov, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Josh Bailey.
It certainly should be a highly entertaining series. The Islanders are only nine months removed from a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. It will be interesting to see if they have the legs to compete with the Penguins. If so, it can be another run playoff run for New York as they aim for their fifth Stanley Cup in team history.