PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – This has been quite the hockey season already hasn’t it?
Another lockout forced the season to be reduced to a 48-game dash to the playoffs. Games were only played against foes within the conference, making them even more important every night.
Well, the Pittsburgh Penguins got off to a good start and then caught fire midway through the season. At one point, the team had won 15 straight games to break away from the rest of the Eastern Conference.
It wasn’t long after that the Penguins secured the Atlantic Division crown and the top seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs.
Now, we’re here. The previous 48 games mean little and the only thing that matters is which of the 16 teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be the first to win 16 games.
Four best-of-seven rounds await the team destined to raise Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail.
Will this year be the Penguins’ year to once again rise to the top of the heap?
General Manager Ray Shero went all-in as the trade deadline approached by acquiring Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen. Shero has done his part in acquiring the pieces. It’s now up to head coach Dan Bylsma and ultimately, the players on the ice to make it happen.
Pittsburgh will be tested right out of the gate in round one by taking on the division rival New York Islanders.
This is the Islanders’ first trip to the playoffs since 2007. It will also be the first time John Tavares has seen action in the playoffs.
Tavares finished the regular season with a team-high 47 points (28 goals, 19 assists), which was just three points better than linemate Matt Moulson (15 goals, 29 assists).
As a team, the Islanders only had three players finish with more than 30 points. The other player to do so was Brad Boyes (10 goals, 25 assists).
The Islanders scored 139 goals this season, which ranks them fifth in the conference among those who qualified for the playoffs. They also allowed 139, which is the most among playoff qualifiers in the league.
Conversely, the Penguins scored 165 goals, which was the most in the league. Pittsburgh allowed 119 goals which ranks them fourth among Eastern Conference playoff teams.
One of the questions marks surrounding the Penguins as they head into the playoffs is the health of captain Sidney Crosby.
Crosby suffered a broken jaw when a slap shot by Brooks Orpik deflected up into his face during a game against the Islanders on March 30.
Crosby has been cleared to return to the ice for practice, but is still awaiting clearance to play in games. Crosby said he would not be playing in Game 1 following the team’s morning skate on Wednesday.
Speaking of Orpik, he is also dealing with a lower-body injury he suffered against the Buffalo Sabres on April 23.
Season Series At A Glance (Home team in bold)
Islanders 4, Penguins 1 – Jan. 29
Penguins 4, Islanders 2 – Feb. 5
Penguins 6, Islanders 1 – March 10
Penguins 4, Islanders 2 – March 22.
Penguins 2, Islanders 0 – March 30
The Penguins won the season series 4-1 and outscored the Islanders 17-9.
Sidney Crosby led all players with nine points – all of which were assists. Pascal Dupuis led the series with five goals, while Chris Kunitz had four goals and four assists.
Frans Nielsen led the Islanders with four assists, while Michael Grabner and Brad Boyes each had two goals.
New York scored two power play goals on 18 chances. However, their power play goals came on their first two chances.
Meanwhile. the Penguins converted three of their 14 chances.
Evgeni Nabokov was 1-4 with a 3.04 GAA and .893 save percentage. Nabokov last saw time in the playoffs in 2010, where he went 8-7 with a 2.56 GAA and .907 save percentage as a member of the San Jose Sharks.
For his career, Nabokov is 40-38 with a 2.29 GAA and .913 save percentage in the playoffs.
For Pittsburgh Marc-Andre Fleury went 1-1 with a 3.60 GAA and a .882 save percentage. In the playoffs, Fleury is 43-32 with a 2.68 GAA and .904 save percentage. His numbers took a big hit after going 2-4 with a 4.63 GAA and .834 save percentage a year ago.
Tomas Vokoun stole the show in the regular season series with a 3-0 record, 0.90 GAA and .970 save percentage in four appearances.
Surprisingly, Vokoun has only seen action in two playoff runs as a member of the Nashville Predators. There, he posts a 3-8 record with a 2.47 GAA and .922 save percentage.
This will be the fourth time the Penguins and Islanders have met in the playoffs. However, the Penguins have never beaten the Islanders and have been subject to some of the most painful losses in franchise history.
In 1982, the Penguins led 3-1 heading to the third period of a series-deciding Game 5. Mike McEwen scored with 5:27 remaining in the third period to cut the lead to 3-2. Then, John Tonelli tied it with 2:21 left in regulation.
In overtime, Tonelli scored again to win the series. The Islanders would go on to win their third of four consecutive Stanley Cups.
In 1993, a heavily-favored Penguins club coming off consecutive Stanley Cup championships fell to the Islanders when David Volek scored in overtime of Game 7.
Players To Watch
For the Islanders, keep an eye on Tavares and Michael Grabner.
This will be the first time Tavares has appeared in the playoffs and he is going to be anxious and excited to be there. Against the Penguins he has six goals and seven assists in 22 career games. He also has three goals and four assists on the power play.
As for Grabner, he very well might be the fastest skater in the National Hockey League. His first step is explosive and he reads plays very well. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Grabner get a couple of breakaway chances in this series.
Against the Penguins, Grabner has five goals (one shorthanded) and three assists in 17 career games.
For Pittsburgh, keep an eye on Brandon Sutter and Fleury.
Throughout the season, Sutter has shown a knack for coming up with a big goal at a key moment. His two goals against the Bruins and an overtime game-winner in a wild 7-6 contest against the Canadiens come to mind.
His line will likely be tasked with shutting down Tavares and will be an interesting matchup to watch as the series unfolds.
As for Fleury, all eyes will be on him after what happened a year ago against the Flyers in the first round. While he was not the sole reason the Penguins bowed out early last year, he did not play his best hockey. Call it fatigue or whatever you want, there are no excuses this season.
Granted, this was a shortened and jam-packed season, but Vokoun started 17 of the 48 games to take the burden of the load off of Fleury.
Against the Islanders, Fleury is 18-7-3 with one tie to go along with a 2.54 GAA and .915 save percentage.
Should he falter, the Penguins have a more than capable backup in Vokoun who is 17-7-1 with a 1.95 GAA and .937 save percentage against the Islanders in his career.
Before I get into my prediction for the series, I asked some of my fellow colleagues at KDKA-TV what they thought.
KDKA-TV Morning News Co-Anchor Rick Dayton: Pittsburgh was one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup before Ray Shero made some impressive roster moves at the trade deadline. The addition of Brenden Murrow, Douglas Murray, Jussi Jokinen, and Jarome Iginla gives the Penguins four tough, proven veterans familiar with the grind of the playoffs. Even if captain Sidney Crosby is limited by the broken jaw, those four will pick up the slack as the Penguins march through the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Prediction: Penguins in 5
KDKA-TV Reporter Ross Guidotti – In five games, this series will go to the Penguins. The Pens have learned to match the speed of the Islanders and have too many offensive weapons for the Islanders to handle.
KDKA-TV Sports Anchor Bob Pompeani: Penguins in five as they end the long-term Islanders’ playoff hex. Even if Crosby misses some time in this series, the Pens have more talent. Also, the experience factor is one-sided. New York is a good, young hockey team, but the Penguins have gone through many battles of late and they will be better for it. Finally, the motivation for Morrow and Iginla, who know this might be their best and final chance to win a Stanley Cup.
At the risk of looking like we all collaborated and came to a general consensus about this series, I have to agree with my colleagues.
I do think that this could very well be a case of the Islanders being initiated into playoff hockey and being shown the door quickly. Many teams have experienced this, including the Penguins back in 2007 when they were ousted by the Senators in five games in the first round.
The Penguins are too deep, too skilled and too battle-tested to not win this series. Anything can happen, but the Penguins are not happy with how the last three playoffs have gone and have never been hungrier.
The additions of Morrow, Iginla and Murray bring more than just a veteran presence to the club. Those three guys are built for playoff hockey. They’re gritty, hard-nosed players and bring an element of physicality to this team that hasn’t been there in their recent playoff runs.
The way they play the game is infectious and will help fire up the rest of the team as well.
Should Crosby return to the lineup, Jokinen would likely move to fill the fourth line center role. During his short tenure in Pittsburgh, he’s proven he can win faceoffs and that he’s not afraid to throw his weight around either.
In the end, the Penguins will skate into the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 5 games.
Game 1 – Islanders Vs. Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center – Wednesday, May 1.
Game 2 – Islanders Vs. Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center – Friday, May 3.
Game 3 – Penguins Vs. Islanders at Nassau Coliseum – Sunday, May 5.
Game 4 – Penguins Vs. Islanders at Nassau Coliseum – Tuesday, May 7.
*Game 5 – Islanders Vs. Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center – Thursday, May 9.
*Game 6 – Penguins Vs. Islanders at Nassau Coliseum – Saturday, May 11.
*Game 7 – Islanders Vs. Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center – Sunday, May 12.
(* denotes if necessary)
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