Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Islanders
Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:
Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins
|VS|| #8 New York Islanders
The Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the New York Islanders in a best-of-seven opening-round series in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins won the regular-season series with the Islanders, 4-1 – the sixth straight season Pittsburgh has finished with a winning record against their Atlantic Division opponent, who is making its first postseason appearance since 2007. Overall, the Penguins are 16-4-1 in their last 21 meetings with the Islanders. That being said, the Islanders do enter the postseason one of the NHL's hottest teams, having gone 11-2-4 in their final 17 games. Here are the main storylines to follow as the series progresses.
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HART TO HART
ADDITIONS WANT A CUP
Before Penguins captain Sidney Crosby suffered a broken jaw in Pittsburgh’s last game against the Islanders on March 30, he was considered the favorite for the Hart Trophy as League MVP. And while Crosby is the NHL’s most outstanding player, there are a few other candidates in the field – and John Tavares is one of them.
The Hart Trophy is given to the player judged to be most valuable to his team, and Tavares is the primary reason the Islanders made the playoffs for the first time since 2007. As the team’s alternate captain, top-line center and leading scorer, the 22-year-old led the push for the Islanders’ playoff berth. Tavares finished the season with 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games. The team went as he did, as the Islanders were just 4-10-3 when he was held without a point and 11-4-2 when he recorded at least one.
Now we’ll see if Tavares can play like a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate during this playoff series against a team as talented and deep as the Penguins. It’s his postseason debut, so he’s sure to have nerves going into the series. But he possesses a dogged, determined work ethic and battle level to go along with his skill and he appears to be the type player who should do well in the games like this, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the intensity of the playoffs.
And of course, we’ll be waiting to see if Crosby, who missed the last 12 games of the regular season after breaking his jaw in the Penguins’ final meeting with the Islanders on March 30, is able to return for this round. Crosby participated in his first team practice in almost a month on Friday, but there is no timetable for his return to game action. Despite missing the last month of games, Crosby still finished third in the scoring race with 56 points (15G-41A).
The Islanders are a quick young team on the rise, but they’re severely lacking in playoff experience. The 27 players on New York's roster have combined to play just 193 career postseason games. For example, Brad Boyes is the only player out of their top-six forwards that’s ever played in the postseason. John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo will all be making their playoff debuts this week. And on defense, New York’s top shutdown pairing of Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald – who will be tasked with the toughest assignments in the toughest games – have yet to experience the postseason.
New York has a tough matchup in this opening series, playing against a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and has become one of the mainstays of springtime hockey. This marks the Penguins' seventh consecutive postseason appearance, and the 27 players who will comprise Pittsburgh's postseason roster have combined to play in 1,159 career playoff games (720 of those with this franchise), win 13 Stanley Cups and appear in 24 Cup Finals. Brandon Sutter, Beau Bennett, Dustin Jeffrey and Robert Bortuzzo are the only Penguins who will be making their postseason debuts.
The Penguins have won series in every way possible over the past six years. In 2009 alone, they swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, came back from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate the Washington Capitals in seven games that same year and defeated the vaunted Detroit Red Wings in seven games to win the Cup after losing in the Final to the same team a year earlier. And now, the Penguins enter this year’s playoffs as the favorite to win the East and with a chip on their shoulder after losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round of last year’s playoffs.
However, the Islanders do have a playoff-tested veteran goalie in Evgeni Nabokov (he makes up for 41.5 percent of the team's postseason experience). Nabokov, in his 12th NHL season, has played 80 career playoff games – all with the San Jose Sharks. He has a 40-38 record, a .913 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average in those games. Nabokov may be 37 years old, but he still shouldered an impressive workload this season. He started 41 of 48 games and recorded 23 wins. Though his numbers weren’t necessarily dazzling, they don’t tell the whole story. He was a rock for the Islanders all season and they will need him to continue to be in the playoffs.
The Penguins and Islanders have both proven adept at putting pucks in the back of the net. Pittsburgh enters the playoffs with by far the NHL’s most productive offense, while the Islanders finished seventh in goals for.
Pittsburgh finished the season ranked No. 1 for the second straight year, scoring 162 goals for an average of 3.38 goals per game. They had a league-best (tied) eight players reach double digits in goals: Chris Kunitz (22), James Neal (21), Pascal Dupuis (20), Sidney Crosby (15), Jarome Iginla (14), Jussi Jokinen (13), Brenden Morrow (12) and Brandon Sutter (11).
Pittsburgh has an absolutely stacked lineup, which was evident when the team produced two long winning streaks in the last two months while key players (Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kris Letang) were sidelined. It could be difficult for the Islanders defense, ranked 21st in the league, to weather attacks from some of the world’s most skilled players. That showed in the season series, especially in Pittsburgh’s 6-1 thumping of the Islanders on March 10. Kunitz had a hat trick and Crosby scored five assists in that game. Pittsburgh won four straight against the Islanders, outscoring them 16-6, after dropping their first matchup of the season on Jan. 29 (4-1).
But the Islanders have a young, skilled and fast forward lineup led by budding superstar John Tavares. Both Tavares and longtime linemate Matt Moulson have developed into a dynamic duo. The two of them combined for 43 goals this season, with Moulson assisting on 20 of 28 Tavares tallies. While the Penguins defense has been stout in the final two months of the regular season, corralling those two could be a tough task. Although Tavares and Moulson were primarily held in check against Pittsburgh this season, earning a combined two goals and six points in five games.
However, when teams have contained New York’s top line of Moulson, Tavares and Brad Boyes (who put up 10 goals and 35 points), the second line of Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey has proven capable of providing secondary scoring. And from the third line, the league’s fastest player Michael Grabner has chipped in 16 goals – which ranks second on the team. Add in the offensive capabilities of blueliners Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky, and New York has a surprisingly deep lineup that could make up for its defense.
A major storyline of any playoff series is the special teams battle. Both the Penguins and the Islanders own lethal power play units, with Pittsburgh’s ranked No. 2 and New York’s ranked No. 11. However, both teams’ penalty killing units ranked in the bottom 10 of the league.
Pittsburgh’s coaching staff has an unfair amount of talent to choose from when on the man-advantage, and it resulted in their highest finish since also ranking second back in 1996-97. But with all of the injuries to star players, we haven’t seen what the Penguins power play could look like with everyone healthy.
What we do know is that both Kris Letang and Paul Martin have proven adept in their own ways at handling quarterback responsibilities. The right-handed Jarome Iginla and left-handed James Neal have ridiculous releases they utilize on their off wings. Chris Kunitz is a thorn in the sides of opposing goalies and defensemen while hovering around the crease screening netminders, deflecting shots from the point and collecting juicy rebounds. And is there anything we really need to say when it comes to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?
New York’s power play may have faltered slightly in the last few games of the regular season, but the Penguins saw firsthand just how dangerous it can be. John Tavares leads the team with nine goals and 16 points on the power play and utilizes his heavy shot from the walls. Linemate Matt Moulson is right behind him with eight goals and 15 points on the power play, and he is a threat from everywhere in the zone. Puck-moving defensemen Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky work the points on the top unit, while Boyes helps provide a net-front presence.
Not only do the Islanders have a skilled power play, but they’ll be facing a penalty kill that finished 25th in the league. However, the final ranking of Pittsburgh’s penalty kill might be deceiving – as in the last two months it has improved dramatically. There were a number of notable cases where four-minute major penalties and multiple 5-on-3s were successfully killed down the stretch. Adding Douglas Murray may be part of the reason why, as one of the main reasons the Penguins brought him in was for his shorthanded prowess. Let’s see if he and the rest of the PKers can deliver during the playoffs.
The Islanders penalty kill finished 21st in the NHL, but they have shorthanded scoring threats in Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner. Nielsen brings craftiness and Grabner brings blinding speed, so the Penguins will have to be wary when they’re on the ice.
Even with his team already a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup, Penguins general manager Ray Shero added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen before the trade deadline. All of those players filled specific needs that the Penguins felt they needed to add to their lineup to make a championship run.
And all four of them became viable assets to Pittsburgh down the stretch, especially with injuries to star players. It’s been surreal watching these guys thrive in black and gold, but it will be even more enjoyable watching them to do what they really came here to accomplish. And that’s to win the Stanley Cup.
It’s clear they are hungry to win and they are the kind of players who are made for the postseason, especially Iginla and Morrow. In addition to what they bring to the ice, both are the consummate teammates and veteran leaders. They are former longtime captains of Western Conference teams and should provide the same kind of presence in the locker room that Gary Roberts and Bill Guerin brought in previous years.
The Penguins finished with a 36-12 record during the regular season, winning the Atlantic Division title and clinching the No. 1 slot in the Eastern Conference.
They were already a Cup favorite with their enviable talent-laden roster that included stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang. But general manager Ray Shero added future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, longtime Dallas captain Brenden Morrow, skilled Jussi Jokinen and hard-hitting defenseman Douglas Murray before the trade deadline with his team on a historic winning streak – cementing Pittsburgh’s status as the team to beat.
But not only will the Penguins be dealing with the pressure that comes with being at the top; they also come into this postseason having suffered two straight first-round exits. So no matter how brilliantly goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the rest of the Penguins played in the regular season, they have something to prove – especially after last year. Pittsburgh’s defense imploded during its opening-round matchup with Philadelphia in 2012, allowing 30 goals in six games. Fleury finished with a .834 save percentage and 4.63 goals-against average in a series that still defies explanation.
The playoff-tested Fleury isn’t letting last year’s performance affect his mental state in a negative way, but he is using it as motivation. As he said after the Penguins’ regular season finale, “I think you learn from it, learn from what happened in the past and try to use it to improve and be ready for these ones coming up.”
The same can be said of his teammates. They’ve already proven that they’ve learned from it, as the Penguins referenced the Flyers series earlier in the season when they felt they were playing too wide open and relying too much on their ability to score goals to win games, instead of playing a complete 200-foot game. And they backed up their words with their play, drastically improving their defense and finishing 12th in the league in goals against.
We’ll see in these next couple weeks if the Penguins can live up to the staggering expectations that have been set for them.
Written by Michelle Crechiolo and Wes Crosby