The Penguins have earned the right to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup for the 13th straight season. It’s an accomplishment to be proud of, but we all know this team doesn’t settle for just qualifying for the best postseason in sports. This is a proud organization that has many people from the top down that want to bring the Cup back to Pittsburgh for the third time in four seasons.
Standing in their way, from the start, will be a playoff nemesis from the past – the New York Islanders. We’ll revisit this in a little bit, but anyone who follows the Penguins closely knows the history between these two franchises in the playoffs.
Previewing the Penguins (44-26-12, 100 points, 3rd in Metropolitan Division)
The Penguins are a tough team to predict in the 2019 playoffs. Based off their 2018-2019 campaign, they have the potential of either making a serious run or getting eliminated in the first round. The Penguins have struggled to put it all together for any kind of a lengthy stretch. Some of it is due to the team being ravaged by injuries to significant players; what else is new? Some of it is inexplicably coming out flat following a couple of really good games.
Ultimately, the team won only six more games than they lost. There’s a lot of parody in this league, and the Metropolitan Division got even tougher this season with Carolina emerging as a playoff team. But, this team is too skilled on paper to lose a total of 38 games in a season. General manager Jim Rutherford made significant moves to help inject life into the team, the most significant being the addition of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann when he shipped Derick Brassard out of town after a disappointing stay with the Penguins.
One reason you can never count this team out of the Stanley Cup talk is because of the obvious star power the team possesses. Sidney Crosby is still one of the premiere players in the league. He scored 100 points in his age 31 season and shows no sign of slowing down. Crosby’s wing mate Jake Guentzel scored 40 goals for the first time in his young NHL career. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, despite having down years, are still highly skilled and have the ability to take over games at any moment. Kris Letang looked better than ever this season, tallying 56 points from the blue line in only 65 games played. Letang stayed relatively healthy this season until a dirty takedown in the Stadium Series game in Philadelphia sidelined him with a concussion for several weeks.
Matt Murray will be the man between the pipes for Pittsburgh. Murray fought with some struggles early on in the season (.877 save percentage in his first 11 starts,) but played really strong from mid-December on (.930 save percentage in his final 39 games.) His .919 save percentage over his 50 games this season doesn’t speak to just how good he was, despite some terrible possession stats the Penguins possess. Murray has been playing near the same level that helped the Penguins win back-to-back Cups in 2016-2017, and he’s more than capable of helping this team get to the dance again.
How the Penguins will win: The Penguins game is pretty clear, now. They haven’t changed much since Mike Sullivan took over in 2015 and their game is their game. The most important task for the Penguins is to limit the giveaways, especially the ones that lead to odd-man rushes. The Penguins were not good in that arena in 2018-2019, and they cannot afford to do that against an Islander team that waits for the opposing team to make a mistake. Staying out of the penalty box is always a huge key for any team but especially for the Penguins in this series. They must win the special teams battles and be smart with the puck. To quote Coach Orion from D3: The Mighty Ducks, “Don’t be careless, but don’t be too careful either.”
Previewing the Islanders (48-27-7, 103 points, 2nd in the Metropolitan Division)
Head coach Barry Trotz went from coaching the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup to reviving hockey on Long Island. The Islanders moved on after John Tavares left town for his childhood team in Toronto and never looked back. Barry Trotz has done great work with the Islanders, instituting a great system that has won them enough games to be only two points shy of winning the Metropolitan Division.
The Islanders have become one of the most responsible teams in the league. They take care of the puck and wait for the other team to make a mistake. They are highly opportunistic and smart. They can roll out four lines consistently and get pretty even production in the offensive zone and very responsible play over the entire 200 feet of ice.
They have some very talented players in Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, and Josh Bailey. They also boast sound defensive players in Johnny Boychuk, Devon Toews, and Ryan Pulock on the blue line that anchor the Islanders’ systematic play. Despite the talent, they don’t have a lot of scoring power. Barzal was the top scorer for New York with only 62 points. No one on the roster scored more than 30 goals. The closest was captain Anders Lee with 28.
Barry Trotz has rolled out a platoon between the pipes with Robin Lehner and former Penguin Thomas Greiss. They came as close to a 50/50 split in playing time, with Lehner starting 43 games and Greiss starting 39. Both were highly effective as Lehner boasted a .930 save percentage and Greiss with a .927. Whatever Trotz’s method is for rotating them, it’s working.
How the Islanders will win: They will need to force the Penguins to take a lot of risks. The Penguins already take their fair share of them already, so a nudge in that direction could make the Penguins implode and turn the puck over constantly. It will literally have to be a dissection by the system Barry Trotz has created to deflate the star power the Penguins possess. They can’t fight with the Penguins blow for blow in scoring goals, so they need to be sound defensively in front of Lehner/Greiss and be opportunistic if and when the Penguins get careless with the puck.
Penguins/Islanders Playoff History
Here’s where you don’t want to look if you’re a Penguins fan. And for goodness sake, don’t bring up 1993.
This marks the fifth time these two teams will meet in the playoffs, with the Islanders winning three of the previous four meetings. Of the 25 games played in those four series, the Islanders hold a very slight advantage, winning 13 of them.
The 1975 series was the first time since 1942 in which a team came back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. In 1982, the Penguins nearly pulled out a similar comeback in a five-game series, but lost a 3-1 lead in the third period of game five, and the Islanders went on to win their third-straight Stanley Cup.
The 1993 series was a heart-breaker. The two-time defending champion Penguins were heavily favored and inarguably had a better team on paper than the previous two Stanley Cup winning teams. The Penguins lost a 3-2 series lead and lost in overtime in game seven after rallying back to force a tie in the game.
The Penguins finally found revenge in 2013, when Brooks Orpik, of all people, buried a slapper from the point in overtime of game six to pack up the series. The Penguins eventually lost in the conference final to the Boston Bruins.
1975: Islanders win 4-3
1982: Islanders win 3-2 (Islanders won Stanley Cup)
1993: Islanders win 4-3
2013: Penguins win 4-2
This is going to be a tight series. If the Penguins play smart with the puck, they can end this in five games. But, if they are careless with the puck, which they have been way too often this season, this one could go the distance.
Ultimately, the Penguins’ star power is just too much for the Islanders’ system and goal-tending duo. But, the Islanders give the Penguins all they can handle along the way.
Penguins in 7.