The Islanders fired their coach and GM at the end of last season, and then lost their star player John Tavares to Toronto. This year was supposed to be a transition year from the Tavares era into the new era of defense and structure under coach Barry Trotz. Instead, the Islanders exceeded all expectations, excelling in the regular season under Trotz’s system and earning home ice for the first time since 1988. Now, they look to translate that regular season success into playoff success, looking to win their second series since 1993 and first Cup since 1983.
Meanwhile, the Penguins have enjoyed lots of success in the Crosby era, making the playoffs for their thirteenth straight season. In that span, they have won three Cups (including two of the last three), made the Cup Finals four times, and the conference final five times. However, last year, the Ovechkin-led Capitals finally got the better of them in the second round. The Penguins are hungry to get back to the promised land and win their third Cup in four years, cementing them as one of the great dynasties in NHL history.
The Penguins won a hard-fought series between these two foes in 2013. Will the Penguins flip the switch and again down their island adversaries on their quest towards becoming a dynasty? Or, can the upstart Islanders take out the Penguin dynasty and make some postseason noise of their own?
The Penguins boast one of the league’s elite offensive cores, scoring 3.30 goals per game (6th in the league). They own the best 1-2 punch down the middle in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (although Malkin’s health is in question as he returns from injury). On their wings, the Pens ice plenty of scoring prowess in names like Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust. Behind them, the third and fourth lines are capable of doing damage offensively, although have not done so as consistently.
Meanwhile, the Islanders lost a lot of their offensive production with John Tavares’ departure. Unsurprisingly, they struggle to score consistently, only scoring 2.72 goals per game (22nd). They do have last year’s Calder winner in Matt Barzal, but he only produced 62 points throughout the year. The Islanders, sort of like Nashville, score best by committee instead of through one player or line, meaning they are deep but not overly talented. If they get to struggle to score, however, there could be some long nights ahead on Long Island.
The Penguins defense has experienced a plethora of injuries throughout the year, although they are getting healthier. Still, they held opponents to only 2.90 goals per game, 14th in the league. Kris Letang had a resurgence back to form after a couple of offseasons, while the return of Brian Dumoulin could prove huge for the Penguins. However, their depth on the blue line is not great and could prove costly in the long run.
Meanwhile, the Islanders defense from last year to this year is night and day. One of the league’s worst defenses under Doug Weight completely embraced Barry Trotz’s defensive structure, allowing the league’s least number of goals per game at 2.33. While they don’t boast the most talent, guys like Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, and Adam Pelech play as a cohesive, disciplined, physical unit that can knock opponents off their game and lock them down. The more cohesive and complete commodity wins the day.
Matt Murray has achieved an incredible amount of playoff success in his early career, winning two Cups in his first two seasons. However, he has become a little more inconsistent recently, leading to doubters in Pittsburgh. Still, he posted 2.69 goals against average and a .919 save percentage. He is still more than capable of putting the team on his back and carrying them through the playoffs but is not invincible.
Meanwhile, the tandem on Long Island has been beyond sensational this year. Both Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss posted GAAs below 2.30, save percentages above .925, and combined for eleven shutouts. In fact, they ran away with the Jennings Trophy for least amount of goals let in over the course of the season, only allowing 191 goals in 81 games. No matter who starts in goal, it will make for a tough challenge to the opposition.
The Penguins have one of the best special teams units in the league at 24.6% (5th). Having Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang, among others, doesn’t hurt. Their penalty kill, meanwhile, is more average, at 79.7%, 19th in the league. This brings their combined special teams to 104.3%, above the average of 100%.
The Islanders only have a slightly better kill at 79.9%, tied for 16th. However, their power play is near the bottom of the league at 14.5% (3rd worst), giving Pittsburgh a major edge there. The Isles’ total is a below-average 94.4%, almost 10% worse than the Pens’ total.
Barry Trotz came over in the offseason from the Capitals, fresh off winning the Stanley Cup. His teams have made eleven prior appearances, winning nine rounds. However, he had not made it past the second round before last season, leading to a 55-58 mark in the playoffs overall. However, he is the front-runner this year for the Jack Adams Trophy for the job he did in turning around the Islanders this season.
Mike Sullivan of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is only in his sixth season as a head coach, fourth with the Penguins. However, he has achieved great success in the postseason, winning nine rounds in four appearances, including back-to-back Cups in 2016-17. He has amassed a remarkable 41-27 tally in the playoffs so far. In this very close coaching duel, I’m going to go to head-to-head vs. each other in playoff series, where Mike Sullivan leads Barry Trotz 2-1 (although Trotz won their most recent meeting).
Advantage: Penguins, barely
Oct 30-Islanders 6, Penguins 3 in Pittsburgh
Nov 1-Islanders 3, Penguins 2 (SO) in New York (Barclay’s Center)
Dec 6-Penguins 6, Islanders 2 in Pittsburgh
Dec 10-Penguins 2, Islanders 1 (SO) in New York (Nassau Coliseum)
Islanders: 2-1-1 in season series, 1-0-1 at home, 1-1 at Pittsburgh
Penguins: 2-1-1 in season series, 1-1 at home, 1-0-1 in New York (won the only game in Nassau, gets the nod due to better road record and +1 goal differential in series)
Advantage: Penguins, barely
COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…
The Islanders won 6 of their last 8, including five of those in regulation. They won their last two games.
The Penguins went 5-2-3 in their last 10, including winning 5 of their last 8. They lost their last game in OT versus the Rangers.
The Islanders have only won one playoff series since 1993, a first-round series against the Florida Panthers in 2016. In fact, the Isles have home ice advantage for the first time since 1988. Meanwhile, the Penguins have made it to the second round in each of their last 3 appearances, including two Cups in that span. As mentioned before, Mike Sullivan is 2-1 in playoff series versus Barry Trotz, but Trotz won the last tilt. These two coaches have combined for the last 3 Cups, making it an extremely intriguing matchup to watch. The last playoff series between these two teams was 2013, where the Penguins beat the Islanders in six.
This series may be the toughest one for me to call, as they are so evenly matched in my opinion. I think it will come down to a tough, hard-fought series that will go to seven, a game which will be held in a raucous Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders will throw everything at the Penguins, but the talent and experience up front finds a way to score that crucial series-winning goal and send the Islanders home angry. Expect this rivalry to really heat up during this series, and expect all-out war throughout the course of this series.
Prediction: Penguins in 7
GAME ONE: Wed, 7:30pm, NBCSN (nat’l), MSG (Isles), ATTSNPIT (Pens)