Penguins Look for Answers Against Tough Islanders Defense

The Pittsburgh Penguins open the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Islanders and feel good about their chances to advance based on their regular-season record against the opposition. The question is, should they?

The Penguins have two obstacles in their way this series. First, the Islanders’ defense. Second, New York goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The Penguins went 6-2 against the Islanders during the regular season. However, the Penguins have a 1-4 series record against the Islanders in their playoff history. Both teams have plenty of playoff experience but, as with every team in the postseason, you can throw history out the window.

Which Penguins team will show up and, more importantly, what are the keys to success for the Penguins?

Evgeni Malkin

The big Russian center has not played since March 16, but recently returned to practice wearing a white jersey. This makes it look like he will be ready for Game 1. If Malkin comes back and returns to the form that makes him so lethal, then that makes the Penguins, who led the league in total goals scored, even more dangerous. He will be relied upon to stay healthy, score goals and create offense against one of the league’s toughest defensive teams.

Create Chances and Rebounds

Pittsburgh will need their offense firing on all cylinders in this series. Varlamov and the Islanders do not give up a lot of scoring chances, and second chance rebounds are few and far between. The Penguins need to create a lot of scoring chances with loose pucks, get nasty in front of the net with screens, use their speed, and cycle the puck to frustrate the Islander defense. Sidney Crosby is going to do Sidney Crosby things, along with Jake Guentzel, Malkin, and Kris Letang.

Jake Guentzel Penguins
Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To beat this stingy defense, the victories will have to come through strong efforts by Evan Rodrigues, John Marino, Zach Aston-Reese, Brandon Tanev, newcomer Jeff Carter, Marcus Pettersson, and Brian Dumoulin.

Use Speed Against Tough Defense

In addition to creating offense and second chances, the Penguins will need ways to utilize their speed as the Islanders’ defense is mobile as well. The Pens need speed, creativity, and quickness to get past the defense and then find a way to beat Varlamov. On the other side, Pittsburgh netminder Tristan Jarry will also have to match Varlamov save-for-save and show he is up to the challenge if there is an odd-man rush the other way due to a defenseman pinching in the offensive zone.

The Islanders’ defense was air-tight this season. The defense was second in the league in total goals against at 125, their team goals-against-average of 2.23 was also second-best, the penalty kill was sixth at 83.7%, and their shots against per game was 28.4, which ranked 10th. Although Varlamov was spectacular, both he and Jarry ranked in the top 10 in wins in the league. Jarry and his 25 wins ranked third, while Varlamov’s 19 wins were 10th.

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Varlamov put the league on notice this season with his outstanding play. He was first in shutouts with seven, his save percentage of .929 was eighth, and his 36 games played ranked 10th. The Penguins did lead the league in total goals scored but they did not come across a team like the Islanders very often. Victory in the first round is possible but the Penguins will have to have everything go right to defeat this brick wall of defense.

The Pens showed they can succeed against the Islanders based on regular-season numbers. However, those games, except for one, were pretty close. The Penguins won 2-1, 2-0, and then 6-3. The offense is there for Pittsburgh to score at will but we know the playoffs are a different season altogether.

Upsets are there for the taking and weird bounces are bound to happen at the worst possible moment. The Penguins have to be careful against this Islanders team as one mistake could cost them big-time. Playoffs are dirty, low scoring, and tight until the very end. Pittsburgh might have to play a perfect series to move on, and they can do just that.