The Penguins meet the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. It hardly seems like it, but the reward for winning the toughest division in hockey is playing the team that finished 11th in the league in total points. The New York Islanders have Stanley Cup ambitions of their own, and they have been a nemesis to the Pens the last few years. Pittsburgh is hoping to right the ship on their march towards Lord Stanley. This has the makings of a brutal series, so here are a few main headlines to look for.
The Coaching Matchup
Mike Sullivan and Barry Trotz are two of the premier coaches in the NHL. Sullivan has had a phenomenal season behind the bench. His team played through injuries and overcame a horrific start to the season both on and off the ice. Opposing Sullivan is the great Barry Trotz. A Stanley Cup winner with Washington, Trotz is arguably the best tactical coach in the league. Sullivan and the Pens learned this first hand in 2019. The Islanders deployed a stifling defensive scheme and embarrassed the Penguins in a 4-0 series sweep. Sullivan’s adjustments to the defensive game this season are reminiscent of the suffocating ways of a Trotz defense. When playing their game, the Penguins’ neutral zone trap and dogged forecheck can close the door on a team quickly. The Islanders are a balanced team that can neutralize their opponent. In many ways, these teams are more similar than different, and the chess match between coaches is maybe the most exciting part of this series.
Lineup Decisions Loom Large
Due to different reasons, both teams have serious lineup questions ahead of game 1. Injuries have been the biggest storyline for the Pens this season, and they continue to be for the playoffs. Evgeni Malkin returned from injury only to tweak something, missing the remainder of the final game against Buffalo. Sullivan anticipates him being available, but how effective will he be? The same can be asked of Brandon Tanev, Evan Rodrigues, and Mike Matheson, two players that are also nearing return. All four practiced in a full contact capacity as of Tuesday, May 11th. If available, Sullivan will have a plethora of forward options and decisions to make.
Meanwhile, the Islanders have depth issues to sort out. Their big deadline acquisitions, Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, haven’t fit with their new team. Trotz has used Palmieri on all 3 lines at different points and Zajac has been a healthy scratch to end the season. One of the biggest challenges for the Islanders in this series will be finding the right combinations.
X-Factors for Each Team
For the Penguins, it’s always simple: Sidney Crosby. He’s the obvious and easiest answer. He’s had a phenomenal season and this team will go the way he goes in the playoffs. For the Islanders, they rely on the young Mat Barzal for their offensive production. He’s a fast paced, offensive juggernaut, but at times allows defenses to contain him into frustration. Aside from the obvious choices, I believe there are two other centers from each team that are potential difference makers: Teddy Blueger and J.G. Pageau.
The matchup of bottom six centers is an intriguing one. Both of these teams have immense center depth, and gaining the edge here can push a team to the next round. Blueger and Pageau should draw the other team’s top players on a regular basis. They fill similar roles for their teams, both play significant defensive minutes, have a gritty demeanor in the ice, and have understated offensive games. Pageau finished the year with 14 goals and 28 points in 54 games, while Blueger had 7 goals and 22 points in only 43 games. If either is successful, it will mean that Crosby or Barzal struggle in the series. I’m looking for both players to provide a needed spark and be key contributors in this series.
Getting out of the East Division is no easy task, and the first round is anything but an exception. The Penguins want to right the wrong of their 2019 and 2020 defeats. Their playoff failures have loomed larger than their regular season success the last few years, but this team has the ability to course correct. They are clicking at the right time and have the pieces to contend for Lord Stanley. The Islanders, on the other hand, have gone from basement dweller to contender in a few short seasons. After losing to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final last season, they are poised for another run. Who will come out victorious? I’m not sure, but one thing I know for sure is I’m ready for some playoff hockey!