After a tumultuous season, one in which the only thing consistent about them at times seemed to be their inconsistency, the Pittsburgh Penguins have advanced to the postseason for a league-best 13th straight season.
Having narrowly avoided a season-ending regulation loss on home ice to the New York Rangers that would have knocked them down to the first wild card spot and resulted in a first-round matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, the Penguins will face the upstart New York Islanders; most of whom will be getting their first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With the departure of former captain John Tavares in free agency and the emergence of up-and-coming stars like Matthew Barzal, the Islanders have undergone a great deal of change since they last faced Penguins in the postseason in 2013.
However, the Penguins will see a familiar face behind the opposing bench in Islanders head coach Barry Trotz, formerly of the Washington Capitals, whom they will face in the postseason for the fourth straight season. Although he will once again have the higher-seeded team, the Penguins will enter the playoffs with some key advantages.
March of the Newest Penguins
While the teams split the four-game season series with each side tallying five points in the standings, they have not faced each other since Dec. 10, and while Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello has kept the same roster throughout the season, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has reshaped his roster and added both size and speed to the Penguins’ lineup with the additions of Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann and Erik Gudbranson.
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Last postseason, the Penguins were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in their second-round matchup due in large part to a lack of scoring depth as Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard, centering the second and third lines, combined for just 12 points in as many games and Phil Kessel, who tallied 34 goals during the regular season, managed only one goal in the playoffs.
This postseason, the Penguins are a much deeper team and will be able to counter a balanced and disciplined Islanders team with four effective lines of their own. They also will not have to rely on Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel to carry the offensive load by themselves as they did last postseason when they combined for 42 points in just two rounds.
Not So Home-Ice Advantage
While the Islanders will have the home-ice advantage in the series, the Penguins, who clinched back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 with victories on the road, tallied 50 of their 100 points during the regular-season away from the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh and have proven to be comfortable playing in arenas that are notorious for making opponents uncomfortable like the Nassau Coliseum.
What’s more, a potential split of the first two games on home ice in front of their fans who are desperate for postseason success as well as the prospect of having to play a must-win game on the road could be a big impediment for an Islanders team not accustomed to postseason success, having won just one playoff series in the last 25 years.
Defensive Depth Key to Success
Having endured the mid-season loss of their top-three defensemen with injuries to Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta, the Penguins have solidified their blue line depth with the emergence of Marcus Pettersson and the reclamation of the much-maligned Jack Johnson and Gudbranson.
Having relied on journeymen such as Chad Ruhwedel or older veterans past their prime such as Ron Hainsey to round out their defensive pairings over the past few seasons, the Penguins enter this postseason with arguably the deepest group of defensemen they’ve had under head coach Mike Sullivan as the aforementioned Letang, Dumoulin and Maatta have all returned from injury just in time for the postseason.
With the Islanders falling from the first-place position they held in the Metropolitan Division for much of the season and the Penguins entering the postseason with a new roster and their old swagger, many are predicting Penguins victory in the series.
However, should the Islanders advance, it wouldn’t be the first time an upstart team from Long Island upset a stacked team from Pittsburgh as Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and the rest of the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion and President’s Trophy-winning 1992-93 Penguins can attest.