56 games up, 56 games down, and it’s time for the best time of the year — playoff hockey. And while some divisions are awaiting teams to finish up their respective regular seasons, the MassMutual East Division has its matchups set. The second-seeded Washington Capitals will play host to the third-seeded Boston Bruins, while the top-seeded division champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, will welcome the fourth-seeded New York Islanders.
The Penguins and Islanders will have to wait for the league’s announcement for exactly when the series will start, while the Bruins and Capitals will kick off their series in Washington on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. Nonetheless, let’s dive into the Penguins-Islanders matchup:
Penguins Have Sour Taste In Their Mouth
Both Penguins fans and the team alike are well aware of what went down the last time these two teams squared off in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Islanders stunned Pittsburgh in the first round with a clean sweep.
After the Capitals and then-coach Barry Trotz shattered the Penguins’ hopes of three-peating in 2018, Trotz signed with the Islanders and used a pretty similar recipe to down Pittsburgh a year later. But, those were different teams.
A lot of the Islanders’ success in 2019 centered around defense and goaltender Robin Lehner’s strong play, but it was his last year with the club as he inked a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks during the offseason before moving on to the Vegas Golden Knights.
For Pittsburgh, it was goaltender Matt Murray’s worst playoff season of his career and was arguably coming off a 2018-19 season that began his decline and led to his trade to the Ottawa Senators and couple of years later. Murray lost all four games in the series while seeing a career-worst in save percentage (SV%) with .906 and goals-against average (GAA) with 3.02.
Offense was extremely hard to come by for the Penguins, as it usually is playing against Trotz’s defensive-centered game plans. Only two Penguins collected at least three points, and no player had more than one goal in the series. Only one Penguin, Jared McCann, finished the series with a positive plus-minus rating.
What’s Different This Time Around?
First and foremost, both teams will be starting a different goaltender this time around as Tristan Jarry is expected to return from injury to start Game 1 for the Penguins, while the Islanders’ goaltending situation could be up in the air as Semyon Varlamov exited Monday’s season finale in the third period. Whether it was injury-related is still yet to be determined.
Varlamov has seen a fantastic season, sporting a record of 19-11-4 with a .929 SV% and a club-record 2.04 GAA while notching a league-best seven shutouts in 35 starts. Backup Ilya Sorokin, on the other hand, has also been very strong for the Isles. Sorokin checks in with a 13-6-3 record, 2.17 GAA, and a .918 SV% to go along with three shutouts in 21 games.
Jarry is nothing to spit at either. After getting off to a slow start, the 26-year-old finished the regular season with a record of 25-9-3 with a 2.75 GAA and a .909 SV% and two shutouts in 39 games. Jarry’s 25 wins are tied for third-best in the league, while his four assists on the season are tied for the league lead.
The Penguins’ defensive unit is much better this time around, as well. In 2019, it was top-heavy with Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin. After that, you had liabilities like Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, and Olli Maata, as well as a very young and inexperienced Marcus Pettersson.
This year, the Penguins have one of the best defensive corps they’ve had in a few years. Letang is reaching new heights offensively, Cody Ceci has revived his career, and Mike Matheson has become an exceptional offensive threat. Also, John Marino and Pettersson have given Mike Sullivan a reliable third pairing. If injuries hit, though, the Penguins have depth with veteran Chad Ruhwedel and a hungry Mark Friedman.
By the Numbers
The Penguins are led by captain Sidney Crosby, who was named team MVP for the ninth time in his career. Crosby spearheads the team in points (62), goals (24), power-play points (22), overtime goals (two), shots (159), even-strength goals (18), takeaways (51) and has scored the first goal of the game a team-best four times.
The exquisite top line for Pittsburgh takes up three of the top four spots in the team’s scoring department with Jake Guentzel (23G, 34A) and Bryan Rust (22G, 20A). Letang checks in tied with Crosby for the team lead in assists with 38.
The Islanders are headlined by young phenom Mathew Barzal, who leads the team in points with 45. His 17 goals trail only Brock Nelson’s 18 for the team lead. They also have gotten contributions out of Josh Bailey (8G, 27A), Jordan Eberle (16G, 17A), and Anthony Beauvillier (15G, 13A).
On the back end, Nick Leddy has been very noticeable offensively, leading the Isles with 29 assists. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech sit atop the plus-minus department among defensemen with a plus-15 each.
The Isles will be without their captain Anders Lee, who required season-ending ACL surgery after suffering an injury in a game against the New Jersey Devils in March. Lee racked up 12 goals and 19 points in 27 games before the injury.
The two teams are still awaiting an announcement from the NHL on the date and time for Game 1, but as of now, the playoffs are expected to begin on Saturday.
Jake Deemer covers the Pittsburgh Penguins while previously writing for The Derrick & The News-Herald newspaper in Oil City, Pa. Born in Western Pennsylvania, Deemer graduated from Clarion University in 2018 with a degree in Digital Media Communications and Sports Journalism.