The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here and we get a familiar matchup as the Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders in the first round. This will be the sixth playoff series between the Penguins and Islanders. The Islanders have won four of the previous five meetings. Including a four-game sweep of the Penguins in the 2019 Eastern Conference First Round. However, this time things will be a little different for the Penguins as they are the top seed in the East Division playoffs and have home-ice advantage. And for the Penguins that is a good thing. The Islanders will start on the road and they do not mind that at all. When this series gets started, the Penguins will be favoured to win the series.
This will be a fun matchup to watch because these two teams are so different. The Penguins play more of an offensive game, while the Islanders are more defensive-oriented. Something will have to give as we have seen in years past between these two teams, the Islanders give the Penguins fits. Let’s take a look at the storylines heading into this first-round series.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders
Penguins Under The Radar
Entering the playoffs, is there a team that is flying more under the radar than the Pittsburgh Penguins? Nobody thought the Penguins would even make the playoffs this season considering their start to the year. But after hiring Brian Burke and Ron Hextall, the Penguins went on a tear going 32-11-2. They made a savvy move bringing in Jeff Carter to add depth down the middle, especially when Evgeni Malkin returns to the lineup. And yes their defence is not what it could be, they are playing better as the playoffs begin.
Let us not forget about Sidney Crosby. Crosby single-handedly put the Penguins on his back with Malkin out of the lineup. He put together such a quiet season, and will get votes for the Hart Trophy this season. He again led the Penguins in points with 62, goals with 24, and tied for the team lead in assists with 38. That is incredible in such a short season.
Crosby did have a lot of help, of course, from players like Jake Guetznel, Kasperi Kapanen, Carter Kris Letang, and others. Despite all the talk around Letang, he put together a good season. One of the more underrated players for the Penguins this season was Jared McCann. He was rock solid for the Penguins. But just like everyone else on the team, he flew under the radar.
The key for the Penguins is to get out of the first round. They haven’t been past the first round since 2018. If you go back to Game 6 in 2018 against Washington and include the 2020 play-in round, the Penguins have lost 10 of their past 11 playoff games. You have to wonder if that will wear on them especially if they go down early in the series.
Islanders Stifilling Defence
The one thing that has driven the Penguins crazy every time these teams have met in the playoffs is the Islanders stifling defence. Under Barry Trotz, the Islanders are one of the better defensive teams in the NHL. They rarely give up many goals and high danger scoring chances. However, this season the Penguins were able to figure out a way to win six games from the Islanders in the season series. The Islanders do not have a problem stopping the puck, it is scoring goals that is their issue.
And how will them only playing the same six-seven players on defence affect the Islanders coming into the series? Down the stretch, you could see those players were tired. It is hard to play the same players night in and night out and during a 56-game season.
But the Islanders, especially their defence, are getting some well-earned rest. Guys like Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Noah Dobson, Andy Greene, Nick Leddy, and others need to be ready for when they have to go up against Crosby and company. The addition of Braydon Coburn sure helps the Islanders. He is just another piece the Islanders can plug into their lineup. And as he has shown with his run with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, he can be effective not playing that many minutes.
If the Islanders are going to win this series, they will have to do it by playing defence first hockey. This is not a problem as they have been playing that style all season. The question will be, will the timely goals be there when the team needs them the most? There is talent there, but that has been the biggest issue for the Islanders all season.
Youth vs Experience Between The Pipes
This is where things get interesting. Because if Semyon Varlamov is healthy the Islanders have the edge in between the pipes, but if he is not then it is a toss-up. The Penguins will go with Tristan Jarry as their starter with Casey DeSmith backing him up. Varlamov is pegged as the number-one guy in New York, but if he can’t go, it will fall on rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin to carry the load against Pittsburgh.
Now, it is not like Sorokin can’t handle the pressure, but the playoffs are a whole different animal and Varlamov was the MVP for the Islanders last year in the playoffs. Sorokin is the future for the Islanders, but tandems only work in the regular season and unless Sorokin struggles, Varlamov might not get the net back with the Islanders. Now, of course, there is still time before Game 1, but missing practice is never a good sign.
On the flip side for the Penguins, Jarry has not much experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now if you count, the play-in round against Montreal last year, he has played in one game and lost it. But he played really well stopping 20 of 21 shots he faced. And while it is only one game, that goes a long way especially if Sorokin is the starter for the Islanders. Things did not start well for Jarry or DeSmith to begin the season, but both goalies got it back on track. Sometimes it is tough to handle expectations after a player like Matt Murray was shipped out. This series really will come down to who has the better goalie.
Special Teams Will Be Key
The Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders series will likely come down to who has the better special teams. In any series that is usually the case. After the regular season was over, the Islanders are ranked sixth (83.7 percent kill rate). While the Penguins are ranked fourth (23.7 percent conversion rate). The Islanders are near the bottom of the league in the category, while the Penguins are near the bottom in penalty kill.
Literally, it is one of the best penalty kills versus one of the best power plays. And usually, offence wins the day here, but the Islanders are so aggressive on their power play, that why it is so effective. Not to mention, the Islanders goalie is usually their best player on the penalty kill. And if he can’t go, lookout. But if the Islanders want any chance in this series, they cannot take multiple penalties in a game, the Penguins burned them during the regular season.
This series will be closer than people think it will be. Even though the Penguins open as the favourite. This will not be a sweep by either team. Look for this series to go six or seven games, at least. The Penguins will have to overcome those demons from playoffs past if they want to go far this season. The Islanders want to prove last year was no fluke. It will come down to can the Penguins overcome the Islanders defence because that is what they struggled with the last two years in the postseason.
Prediction: Islanders in six
Embed from Getty Images