PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For the second time in three years, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders will face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Beginning on Sunday at noon at PPG Paints Arena, the series will begin between the MassMutual East Division rivals.
When the two teams last met in the postseason, the Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Islanders taking the series four games to none. During the series, the Islanders outscored the Penguins 14-6.
This year, the Penguins enter the series in a much better position, clinching home-ice advantage through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs, having won the MassMutual East Division with a record of 37-16-3 good for 77 points in a shortened 56-game season.
Will this series be different than 2019?
Let’s dive in.
Beasts Of The East
Despite a record of 44-26-12 for 100 points going into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins only finished third in the Metropolitan Division, causing the series to begin on Long Island.
From there, the Penguins were unable to win either of the first two games at Nassau Veteran’s Coliseum.
This year, the Penguins scratched their way through a competitive MassMutal East Division with the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders, and coming out on top.
Despite players such as Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brandon Tanev missing long stretches of time, the Penguins leaned on their captain Sidney Crosby, who put up big numbers, scoring 24 goals, 38 assists, for 62 points.
The Penguins winning the division is an important factor, considering the first two rounds of the playoffs will be strictly intradivisional, so should the Penguins advance to round two to take on the winner of Boston vs. Washington and that series will also begin at home.
With that in mind, the Penguins were tied with the President’s Trophy-winning (award for best overall record in the National Hockey League) Colorado Avalanche for the best record on home ice at 22-4-2.
When the Penguins play at PPG Paints Arena, as the record shows, they are nearly unbeatable.
Having four out of a possible seven games at home is a net positive for the Penguins.
With the Penguins being strong on home ice, they were middle-of-the-road when it came to games away from PPG Paints arena, finishing 10th in the National Hockey League, compiling a record of 15-12-1.
For the Penguins to win their sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history, they’ll have to take advantage of playing at home.
Deep In The Depths
When the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, they were known for their star power but also for having contributors up and down the lineup.
This year is looking quite similar.
While Sidney Crosby led the team with 62 points, he had plenty of company.
Crosby’s 24 goals were good for best on the Penguins but right behind him were his linemates Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel, scoring 22 and 23, respectively.
Meanwhile, Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen each scored north of 10 goals, with Kapanen scoring 11 and McCann scoring 14.
Trade deadline acquisition Jeff Carter has also been experiencing a resurgence of sorts, scoring 9 goals in 14 games for the Penguins, more than doubling his total of 8 goals scored for the Los Angeles Kings in 40 games.
When the Penguins were swept out of the first round three years ago, the team only four players that scored more than 20 goals. They also had 10 players that played more than half of the season only scoring single-digit goals.
Having scoring options up and down the lineup against a defensively accountable team such as the Islanders will help the Pens advance to the second round.
How The Penguins Can Win
This is a much different Penguins team taking on the Islanders in 2021.
It’s a very similar team coming to PPG Paints Arena from Long Island in 2021.
They’re still a very stingy defensive team, finishing first in the NHL in goals allowed at 128.
However, the Penguins were not far behind, allowing 156, which was good for third.
The Penguins can score in bunches, as their 196 goals scored will show, so once again patience will be required.
During the 2021 season, the Penguins took the season series, winning six of eight against the Islanders. The biggest reason for that: in the Penguins’ six wins against the Islanders, they entered the third period either tied or leading the Islanders, keeping the Islanders from dropping into prevent defense and smothering the Penguins.
While scoring first may not be an indicator of success, where the score stands after 40 minutes of play could be a determining factor of how the final 20 will end.
Player To Watch
Much like the Penguins themselves, Tristan Jarry was tremendous on home ice this year, posting a .926 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average.
Meanwhile, the road hasn’t been kind to Jarry.
His numbers plummet to an .885 save percentage and 3.25 goals-against average.
For the Penguins to make a long run this summer, they will need the home version of Tristan Jarry backstopping them and not the one on the road.
The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be a proving ground of sorts for Jarry as well. Taking the starting job this year after former General Manager Jim Rutherford traded two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray to the Ottawa Senators in the offseason, Jarry only has appeared in a single Stanley Cup Playoff game.
Assuming the forward depth continues to produce, the defense stays steady, and Jarry plays the way he did at home, the Penguins could be poised for a deep run.
Fourth Place Finishers
The Islanders finished fourth in the division this season, spending early parts of the campaign atop the standings before falling off, but not falling low enough to miss the playoffs.
It was a tight race in the division from 1-4, with the Penguins, Capitals, Bruins, and Islanders all finishing within 6 points of one another, and then an 11-point gap between New York and the 5th place-finishing Philadelphia Flyers.
Brock Nelson led the way for the Islanders with 18 goals, while Mathew Barzal was the leading scorer for the team with 45 points.
After losing captain Anders Lee for the remainder of the season with a knee injury before the trade deadline, the Islanders went out and made a few trades, acquiring Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a 1st-round pick, a conditional 4th-round pick, and a couple of minor league players.
Zajac and Palmieri both failed to produce at a high level after being acquired, with Anders Lee’s presence on the roster down the stretch being missed.
Between the two, they only managed to produce 3 goals and 3 assists down the stretch.
Energy Up Front
Barry Trotz and the Islanders, as usual, will likely lean on depth forwards with their line of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin to often start games to provide a spark and get the game going with some energy.
When it comes to the blue line, Nick Leddy was the Islanders’ most productive defenseman, chipping in 29 assists this season. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech were a formidable force of their own, quietly contributing 17 and 14 points, respectively.
In net, Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin split starts, with Varlamov getting 35 games in goal and Sorokin getting the remaining 21 of them. Varlamov went 19-11-4 and Sorokin going 13-6-3.
Over the past several days, Varlamov had maintenance days and didn’t skate with the team, but Barry Trotz repeatedly stated that Varlamov was still expected to be the starter when the series opens on Sunday.
How They Stack Up
In 8 games against the Penguins this season, the Islanders only won 2 games, with 4 regulation losses and an additional two losses in overtime. The Penguins outscored the Islanders 26-19 in the 8-game season series.
The Islanders never found solid footing down the home stretch of their regular-season schedule, with an up-and-down record through the month of April. After losing back-to-back games against the Penguins, the Islanders responded by going on a 4-game winning streak, knocking off the Capitals and Flyers twice each, but after that, they never were able to continue with their head of steam.
During their remaining 15 games following that streak, they never won more than 2 games in a row and lost 3 games in a row on two different occasions. By in large, the Islanders finished their season simply trading wins and losses on a back and forth basis.
How The Islanders Can Win
The Islanders’ chance to move on to the second round comes down to one word: discipline.
Any team coached by Barry Trotz is not expected to play a fast-paced, offensive-minded game and the 2021 Islanders are no different.
For the Islanders to beat the Penguins they will need to stick to a defensive structure in the neutral zone and defensive zone that will frustrate a Penguins team with a lot of firepower.
One way the Islanders’ system could do that is on the counterpunch. They will hope to frustrate the Penguins’ stars with a lack of chances, causing them to be careless with the puck and to take risks, leading to turnovers.
The Islanders were masters in the 2019 series at creating chances off of turnovers and on the rush after the Penguins were either careless with the puck or playing right into their defensive structure.
To get to round two, the Islanders will need to replicate that blueprint.
Player To Watch
New York is not known for offensive firepower, at least not in the modern era, but leading the way for them was Mathew Barzal and his 45 points.
In 8 games against the Penguins, Barzal recorded three goals and three assists.
Any time he faces off against the Penguins, he’s always a threat and this series will likely be no exception.
If we go back to the 2019 series, Barzal was held without a goal, but he assisted on five goals during the series.
Of those five assists, two were on game-winning goals, and two were on game-tying goals.
When the Islanders need production, they usually get it from Barzal.
Game One: Sunday, May 16, 12:00 p.m. – PPG Paints Arena
Game Two: Tuesday, May 18, 7:30 p.m. – PPG Paints Arena
Game Three: Thursday, May 20, 7:00 p.m. – Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Game Four: Saturday, May 22, 3:00 p.m. – Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Game Five (if necessary): Monday, May 24 TBD – PPG Paints Arena
Game Six (if necessary): Wednesday, May 26 TBD – Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Game Seven (if necessary): Friday, May 28 TBD – PPG Paints Arena