The old adage is everything is forgotten once the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. If you’re one of the lucky teams that qualify, it becomes a season unto itself in many ways as the intensity gets turned up to an 11 and the real battle begins. That has been the mantra of New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz in these final weeks of the season.
Weeks where his team stumbled to the finish line with a record of 13-11-3 over the second half and 6-7-3 over their final 16 games.
Now with the playoffs almost here and looking at what the Islanders are up against in their First-Round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but if things don’t drastically change, I’m going with Pittsburgh in six games.
Pittsburgh’s high octane offense and power play are the difference here, and the Islanders miss Anders Lee more than people already realize.
Trotz has struggled to integrate Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac into his lineup since Lee went down with a knee injury. The team has relied on ridiculous goaltending from probable Vezina Trophy candidate Semyon Varlamov and rookie phenom Ilya Sorokin while they stumbled to generate offense 5v5 and plodded through an unexplainably disastrous power play.
Josh Bailey suffered through one of his worst seasons as a pro. Brock Nelson was inconsistent, and even Mathew Barzal failed to generate much of a consistent impact over the season’s final 15 games.
When you look at the season series between the Islanders and Pittsburgh it doesn’t tell much of a comforting tale either. The New York Islanders went 2-4-2 and allowed 26 goals, the most they have given up against any team in the division.
You know Pittsburgh is loaded with offense, led by future Hall-of-Famer Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, swiss army knife Bryan Rust, and recently returning Evgeni Malkin. The addition of Jeff Carter at the trade deadline only added to Pittsburgh’s firepower, as he finished with nine goals in 14 games since coming to the steel city.
On defense, the Penguins are a little more susceptible after Kris Letang. However, the Islanders’ insufficient team speed, outside of Barzal, could play favorably into the hands of Codi Ceci and Mike Matheson. In what’s expected to be a chippy, physical series, it’s going to be crucial for the Islanders to get in forcibly on the forecheck and wear down the Penguins, who have been known to be easily agitated with heavy, physical play.
If there’s one significant advantage for the New York Islanders in this series, it’s in goal. Varlamov has been spectacular, posting 19 wins, 2.04 goals-against average and .929 save percentage with seven shutouts. After Varlamov left Monday’s game with what Trotz described as a ‘tweak’, Sorokin is a qualified backup, should he be needed, in just his first NHL season (2.17, .918).
Varlamov, however, should be ready for Game 1 on Sunday.
Pittsburgh counters with Tristan Jarry (2.75, .909) and Casey DeSmith (2.54, .912), both capable, but hardly Marc-Andre Fleury. Between the two, they have one playoff game between them.
Special teams are where it gets interesting.
The Penguins’ elite power play and bottom-feeding penalty kill matched against the Islanders’ powerless play and excellent penalty kill. One or two power plays a game could easily determine the winner of the entire series.
There is no doubt the Penguins have a considerable advantage on offense and might even have a slight edge on defense where the Islanders have struggled in coverage the past six weeks.
However, a hot goaltender can take you far in this tournament, as we have seen across history. And there should be no question that the Islanders enter this series with a clear advantage between the pipes.
It’s always tough to make predictions before a game is even played. If the Islanders truly can flip the switch and get under the Penguins’ skin, the outcome could be different. But with what we’ve seen over the past eight weeks, I have to stick with my prediction.
At least, for now.