Grove: What To Watch For In Penguins/Islanders Match up

Round 1 kicks off Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum in New York

Bob Grove
April 08, 2019 - 9:39 am

© David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

Related: Round One Of Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Playoff Schedule Released

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - The New York Islanders have missed the playoffs eight times in 13 seasons and won one playoff series in the last 25 seasons. So their presence in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs is one of its engaging  storylines, as they’ve gone from the worst defensive team in the league to its best under a coach who one year ago won the Cup in Washington and was promptly discarded by Capitals’ management.

The high-scoring Penguins have qualified for the playoffs now in 13 straight seasons, the NHL’s longest current streak by some distance and the longest in the history of a team that’s won three Cups and 96 playoff games in the previous 10 seasons. But in an Eastern Conference that features not only the defending champion Capitals but a Presidents Trophy-winning Tampa Bay team that just matched the NHL record for wins in a season, Pittsburgh and its sixth-place finish in the Eastern Conference isn’t drawing a ton of attention.

It’s an interesting matchup not just because of their different approaches to success but also given their tight four-game series this season, when each team won two games, including one in a shootout and one on the road. The teams haven’t faced each other in four months, a highly unusual fact which adds another layer of intrigue to the series which begins on Long Island Wednesday.

Here are some things to watch:

  • Pens’ special teams advantage. While both teams had nearly identical below-average performances on the penalty kill this season (NYI were 18th at 79.9% and the Pens 19th at 79.7%), Pittsburgh owns a huge edge on the power play. The Penguins finished No. 5 on the power play at 24.6% despite a slump over the final three weeks of the season, much of which was played without both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, who are critical to the team’s success with the extra man. The Islanders have the NHL’s third-worst power play at 14.5% and delivered just three power play goals over the final 22 games of the regular season. It’s one of the reasons New York finished 22nd in scoring this season
  • Pens’ proclivity for allowing short-handed goals. Pittsburgh joined Boston in allowing a league-high 15 short-handed goals this season, in stark contrast to the Islanders allowing a league-low one. Unless he has a lead in the third period, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan is not likely to use another defenseman on the top unit with Letang, so the Penguins are going to have to try and curb the poor decision-making that has led to so many short-handed goals and chances – no matter if it takes the edge off their creativity on the power play. The Islanders scored two short-handed goals during the season series, too, so this is one place New York can look when trying to swing momentum.
  • The Trotz Factor. Islanders’ coach Barry Trotz, a certain Jack Adams Award finalist for Coach of the Year, has been more successful than most in dealing with high-scoring, talented Pittsburgh teams. The Penguins are 18-18-2 with two ties in the regular season against Trotz-coached teams in Nashville, Washington and New York and 10-9 against him in the post-season. He and the Capitals knocked the Penguins out last season and pushed them to seven games the
    previous season, so he knows his defense-first approach can make things difficult for Pittsburgh – even without the kind of game-breakers he had last spring in Washington when his team countered against the Penguins.
  • Who’s got the lead? Let’s forget the obvious need to score first in the playoffs. For the Penguins, playing from behind at any point in this series is playing into the Islanders’ hands. They’re built to prevent scoring chances, and with a lead they can double down on those talents. Pittsburgh held a lead for 78:04 during its four-game series with the Islanders this season while New York had a lead for only 54:58. Forcing an offensively challenged New York team to chase games is where the Penguins want to be. But if they can’t get there right off the bat in games, they’ll need to keep frustration from playing into their performance.
  • It’s the goaltending, of course. The Islanders’ Robin Lehner has never before started a playoff game and has played in only two, both coming in 2013 in relief against Pittsburgh. Yet he’s coming off the best regular season of his career, among goalies with 30+ games played finishing third in goals-against average (2.13) and second in save percentage (.930). He also won five of his last six starts after slumping a bit in late February and early March. The Penguins’ Matt Murray, meanwhile, already has two Stanley Cup rings. He was spectacular down the stretch, starting 20 of their last 21 games and routinely making big stops at critical junctures of games. Over the last two months of the regular season, he matched Lehner’s .929 save percentage while playing eight more games, which is saying something when he plays behind a team that allows more shots and more quality chances than New York. There’s also this: neither one plays particularly well against their opponent in this series. Lehner has won two of eight career starts against Pittsburgh while going 2.99 and .899, and Murray has lost each of his last four starts against New York. If needed, Trotz will quickly go to former Penguin Thomas Greiss, who played only three fewer games this season than Lehner, who missed four games with injuries. Murray, on the other hand, would likely leave the lineup only due to injury and has more pressure. But he’s already proven he can handle it on much bigger stages than Lehner has ever seen.
  • Is a return to form ahead for Malkin and Kessel? The Pittsburgh lineup has far superior offensive skills, but the Penguins aren’t making any kind of longer run this spring without both Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel rediscovering the production levels that have made them stars. Malkin is coming off the worst goal-scoring season of his career, getting just 21 goals and averaging just two even-strength goals per month during a season in which injuries again plagued him late. Kessel, meanwhile, had only 10 goals in the second half of the season, including just five at even strength. Kessel is also coming off a poor-to-average 2018 playoffs (1 goal, nine points in 12 games) after playing critical roles in Pittsburgh’s 2016 and 2017 Cup triumphs. He had three goals in the final three regular season games and is hoping that’s a sign of a coming surge. The Islanders will plan for ways to contain Sidney Crosby and his linemates, and the more problems Malkin and Kessel cause will make New York’s challenges even bigger.
  • That effective (or annoying) fourth line. New York center Casey Czikas and wingers Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck bring that old school energy and hitting on the fourth line, and you can bet they’ll be looking to unnerve the Penguins on every shift. Among NHL forwards, Martin finished fifth in hits this season and Clutterbuck 14th. None of those three are career plus players when facing the Penguins, but they can (and have) change game dynamics against Pittsburgh before, forcing Pittsburgh to play in its own zone more than it wants. Their style also feeds into and off what will be an emotional and vociferous environment at Nassau County Coliseum, where the Penguins have won only four of 12 playoff games all-time. If they get under the Penguins’ skin, including drawing penalties, they will have done their job. Pittsburgh has to avoid retaliating and turn this line’s penchant for making hits for hits’ sake into odd-man situations.
  • The Crosby factor. Sidney Crosby is coming off a dominant regular season, easily one of his best ever and arguably the best ever given early goaltending issues and late-season injuries and scoring slumps for Malkin, Kessel and Patric Hornqvist. He is more likely than anything to use the past six months as a launch pad for even better things. He’s delivered his best defensive performance ever this season and was special in the faceoff circle – where Pittsburgh has a decided edge in this series – while putting up 100 points for the sixth time. He has more points (113) and averages more points per game (1.71) against the Islanders than any other team. He’s scored six goals in eight career regular season games against Lehner. He’s setting up the team’s most dangerous goal-scorer, Jake Guentzel, every night and setting the tone for everyone else. The Penguins more scorers who can be counted upon for critical plays at critical times in the playoffs than New York, and Crosby is at the top of that list.


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