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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The Penguins begin their quest for a third Stanley Cup in four years tonight in Long Island against the New York Islanders. In order to move on to the second round, here are five keys to beating the Isles.
The Pittsburgh Penguins finally found that illusive third line center they’ve been looking for since Nick Bonino signed in Nashville in 2017. The addition of Nick Bjugstad gives this team depth down the middle reminiscent of their Stanley Cup runs of 2016 and 2017. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bjugstad and Matt Cullen down the middle and add in players such as Jake Guentzel, Phil Kessel, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and Patric Hornqvist, you have a forward group that envies the likes of Tampa Bay. The Islanders have two strong lines with players like Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle, but when former Penguin Tom Kuhnhackl is in your top six, that’s not a deep forward group. Being able to possess the puck in the offensive zone the way the Simon-Bjugstad-Hornqvist line has gives the Penguins a distinct advantage up front.
Despite the combination of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss winning the Jennings Trophy for best save percentage with a minimum of 25 games played, there is no clear starter in Long Island. On the other end, since returning from injury, Matt Murray has recorded a .930 save percentage and has played lights out. Starting the playoffs against the team that finished 22nd in goals for in 2018-2019 should be a good start for Matt Murray to get into a groove.
3. Special Teams
Despite being one of, if not the best, defensive teams in the National Hockey League this season, the Islanders’ penalty kill was decidedly….average. Finishing 18th with a 79.9%, the Islanders surrendered 44 power play goals this season. Facing a Penguins team that despite giving up a league-leading 15 shorthanded goals, still finished 5th in power play percentage at 24.6%. Taking advantage of this penalty kill will be crucial to getting to the second round.
4. Win The Battle Behind The Net
One of the keys to New York’s success this season was insulating their goaltenders and packing the middle of the ice. The Islanders gave up the 12th least amount of shots against this season, but even those chances came largely from the point or the boards. Establishing puck possession behind the net and reversing the flow of play to open up the middle is going to be a huge factor in beating the Islanders. With players like Crosby, Guentzel, Cullen, Bjugstad and others, the Penguins would be wise to get behind the net, draw in Islanders defensemen and open that middle lane.
5. Experience Matters
If you combine the amount of playoff games played on the Penguins roster compared to the Islanders roster, the Penguins nearly double the Islanders in playoff games played. The Penguins are good for 1,141 GP while the Islanders just 662. The Penguins have a mere three players making their playoff debuts; Jared McCann, Teddy Blueger and Casey DeSmith (was with the team last season, but did not appear in any playoff contests.) Barring any sort of disaster, that last one won’t see time. The Islanders will have seven players making their playoff debuts and their likely starting goaltender Robin Lehner has played two playoff games. Not to mention their captain Anders Lee has played only five Stanley Cup Playoff games in his career. Compare that to Sidney Crosby’s 160. The Penguins have been here before, a lot. The corps of this team, Crosby, Malkin and Letang, has been through it all. They’ve seen the top of the mountain and they’ve been swept out of the playoffs and everything in between. Leaning on their experiences and keeping emotions in check during the most intense battle of the NHL season will serve them well against the young Islanders.