The New York Islanders will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with their first game being May 16th. The Penguins are regarded as the favorites to advance and understandably so, considering that they finished with the top record in the East Division. Moreover, the top team defeated the Islanders in six of the eight regular-season meetings and have the speed and depth that has given them problems throughout the season.
The style of play in these games and coaching adjustments will be pivotal in determining which team wins the series, but some skaters can step up and help the Islanders pull off the upset and advance to the next round. The top line skaters in Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle are going to be expected to carry the team, but the depth is also going to have to stand out to defeat a team that is as complete as the Penguins.
Pulock has been a phenomenal defenseman for the Islanders this season, playing arguably the best on the defensive end of the ice this season. Along with Adam Pelech, Pulock has been able to form one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL. The duo constantly creates turnovers in the defensive zone and forces the best scorers in the game to take difficult angles on odd-man rushes. For the Islanders top defenseman, it will be pivotal to limit the forwards on the Penguins from creating in space and taking advantage of their speed, especially the line of Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel, which capitalizes on turnovers and breakaway chances with all three skaters scoring 20 goals or more this season.
Moreover, Pulock needs to be effective at the point in this series when the Islanders are controlling the puck in the offensive zone. The Penguins can create odd-man rushes off turnovers into scoring chances. The entire defense needs to be disciplined with the puck and prepared for the skating ability of their opponent. Pulock, in particular, can also boost the offensive production with some great slapshots from the point, something the Islanders will need considering how their offense has struggled and goals will be difficult to find in the series.
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The 26-year-old defenseman only has two goals this season, albeit one of them being an overtime winner against the New York Rangers, but can be the game-changer in this series with his shooting ability to force a difficult save in traffic but also create chaos in front of the net, allowing the offense to find scoring opportunities.
The Islanders must find scoring in the later forward lines to win this series. The offense has struggled in the second half of the season, notably after Anders Lee suffered a torn ACL and subsequently was placed on the long-term injured reserve. Considering how the Penguins defense has played this season, the top line of the Islanders will have difficulty creating scoring chances and finding the back of the net, requiring the offense to find goals in the later lines. The third line can be a major factor in the team’s playoff success and Pageau can be the skater that helps carry the line and the entire offense in the upcoming series and onward.
Pageau has a reputation for scoring in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring eight goals in the 2016-17 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Ottawa Senators and scoring eight goals in the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Islanders. More importantly, the third-line center has the ability to create scoring chances in front of the net or with accurate shots on an odd-man rush. Pageau can find a few scoring opportunities against the backend of the Penguins defense and likewise open up the ice for the rest of the line to find the few goals needed to swing the series in the Islanders’ favor.
The Islanders were struggling down the stretch, but Beauvillier was one of the few bright spots as the 23-year-old skater was able to continue to create on the offensive end of the ice despite the rest of the offensive issues, scoring seven goals in the final 11 regular-season games. For head coach Barry Trotz, Beauvillier can be the wild card to help any line and expose the Penguins defense in the process. The 23-year-old forward has played primarily played alongside Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey this season but can play on any shift, with his skating ability and scoring instincts to transform it into an effective scoring unit.
In the series against the Penguins, the offense will need to find scoring throughout their lineup and likewise be able to expose any matchup on the ice if possible, making Beauvillier an integral part of the team’s success. Ideally, Beauvillier will continue to play on the same line that he has been on for most of the season, complimenting Nelson’s ability to create near the net. Something to keep an eye on will be if Trotz chooses to play the young scorer alongside Barzal and Eberle on the top line or attempt to play him alongside Pageau in the later shift for the Islanders.
Who Else Can Step up for the Islanders?
Ideally, the entire team can play well against the Penguins and overwhelm the top-seeded team to pull off the upset. Specifically, the Islanders will need the depth to step up in the series, especially on the offensive end of the ice, where goals will be hard to find against the Penguins defense. Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac both have yet to make their marks in the offense since being acquired at the trade deadline and the upcoming series would be an ideal time to see them both step up. Ultimately, the Islanders will need to play disciplined hockey where they don’t allow the opposing talent to take advantage of each game.
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.