It took until the very last minutes of the NHL's season to determine that these teams would meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The New York Islanders fell to the No. 8 seed when the Ottawa Senators defeated the Boston Bruins with a late goal in the final game of the season, Sunday night in Boston, to leapfrog past the idle Islanders.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, have occupied the top seed in the Eastern Conference for much of the season, putting together a solid, and often spectacular, campaign.
The dramatic turns of events that played out on TD Garden ice could not have been warmly greeted by the Islanders players. The excitement of returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years, and the possibility of winning a series for the first time in two decades, has to be slightly tempered by the odds now faced. Certainly, the Islanders would have preferred to get the Bruins, the other possible opponent when the final game started.
Instead, it is the juggernaut out of Pittsburgh, which feasted on New York this season.
New York won the first game, in late January, by a 4-1 score, but then dropped the next four -- including three in a three-week span -- by a combined score of 16-5.
To make matters worse, the Penguins seem to be getting healthy for the first time in a long time. Sidney Crosby, out with a fractured jaw, has been cleared to practice with the team and could be in for Game 1. Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Paul Martin, all sidelined at some point in April, are already back in the lineup. Plus, the Penguins have added Jussi Jokinen to the fold since the last time these teams met on March 30.
John Tavares has established himself both as the face of the franchise and one of the top players in the sport. He will likely receive serious consideration for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player after racking up 47 points in 48 games.
It was no secret Tavares had the skill to be an elite player in the League when the Islanders used the top pick at the 2009 NHL Draft for his services. But what separates Tavares from many is his drive. His desire to be the best player on the ice every single shift has rubbed off on his teammates and is the main reason the Islanders are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years.
Tavares, along with linemates Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes, lead an offense that improved as the season advanced. But New York's top trio combined for more than 100 points, led by Tavares, who finished third in the NHL with 28 goals.
Coach Jack Capuano deserves credit for showing patience with his club's second line; it took time for Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo to start producing offensively. But once they got going, they were arguably New York's most consistent line during the final month of the regular season.
Michael Grabner, a finalist for the Calder Trophy in 2011, remains a threat every time he touches the puck because of his tremendous speed. If he gets hot, the Islanders will have three dangerous lines in the playoffs.
Free-agent acquisition Colin McDonald has been a nice complement for Matt Martin this season, and the gritty forwards have provided offense (they've combined for 11 goals) and a physical, yet disciplined game.
Jokinen has five goals and nine points in nine games since coming to Pittsburgh in a trade from the Carolina Hurricanes. If everyone is healthy, he likely will be on the fourth line. Rookie Beau Bennett, who has 12 points in his past 19 games, might not even crack a healthy Penguins lineup.
Yes, the Penguins are deep and talented at forward. Crosby is practicing again, but his return remains unclear. Even without him, the Penguins might have the best set of forwards in the East; with him there is no debate.
When everyone is healthy, Crosby likely will center Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis -- each a 20-goal scorer this season. Evgeni Malkin likely will skate between Iginla and Neal, which might be one of the top five trios in the League but would be the No. 2 line for Pittsburgh. Brandon Sutter would center a third line with Morrow (12 points in 14 games since arriving from Dallas) and Matt Cooke, and the fourth unit has several possibilities. A skilled player like Bennett or Tyler Kennedy could be on the outside looking in.
It is a scary group on paper, but they still have to prove they can fit together.
There are no superstars on New York's blue line, but there is structure and steadiness.
His biggest acquisition took place at the 2012 NHL Draft, when he acquired veteran Lubomir Visnovsky from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round pick in 2013. Though Visnovsky hasn't put up the numbers we've seen in previous seasons, he's been a nice complement to Streit on the power play and has played solidly in his own end while gobbling plenty of minutes.
Matt Carkner, who signed as a free agent last summer, has provided added toughness and could be called upon against the opposition's more rugged forwards.
Letang and Martin have missed time with injuries but appear healthy as the playoffs begin. Brooks Orpik might not be ready though.
This group will face heavy scrutiny if the team starts to leak goals like it did in the 2012 playoffs, but Martin has been much better this season, and the addition of Murray in a trade from the San Jose Sharks added a dose of snarl that wasn't there previously.
There will be decisions to make here for coach Dan Bylsma as well. When everyone is healthy, the Penguins have nine capable defensemen. There's also an ability to mix and match on the third pair depending on whether Bylsma wants some combination of skill (rookie Simon Despres), grit (Derek Engelland) or savvy (Mark Eaton).
Evgeni Nabokov has been here before several times in the past with the Sharks, and the Islanders will certainly rely on their battle-tested goaltender as a large chunk of the roster enters unchartered waters.
The 37-year-old struggled at times at the start of the season, but found his groove. He enjoyed a stretch of eight consecutive games when he allowed two or fewer goals.
An unrestricted free agent this summer, a strong postseason could translate into one more big payday in July, most likely from the Islanders.
Nabokov is backed up by Kevin Poulin, who was New York's fifth-round pick at the 2008 NHL Draft. Poulin made four appearances after being promoted from Bridgeport of the American Hockey League in late February.
Marc-Andre Fleury has rebounded from an awful playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers last season and has posted four sub-2.40 goals against averages in the past six seasons (and he won the Cup in a year that wasn't). There will be plenty of pressure on Fleury, but he has more big-game success on his resume than some pundits remember.
Tomas Vokoun has been one of the top backups in the League this season, and the Penguins have looked comfortable regardless who is in net. He allowed Fleury plenty of rest during the season, which could pay off in the playoffs.
Much like many of his players, this will be Capuano's first experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While some coaches spend a lot of sleepless nights worrying about X's and O's, Capuano is all about, as he likes to phrase it, "battle level." His roster has certainly bought into his approach, and with the Islanders in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, Capuano will likely be rewarded with a new contract this summer.
His best quality is his willingness to allow his best players to do what they do best. That has translated into more success in the offensive end: The Islanders tied for 10th in power-play efficiency, converting at 19.9 percent.
Bylsma's toughest task might just be filling out his lineup card. He's got depth at every position, and can go in a number of different directions based on matchups or how a series is progressing. He's cemented his place as one of the top coaches in the League, and he continues to get this team to win games in the regular season regardless of which star is missing that night.
A total of 13 coaches have won the Stanley Cup twice since it has been exclusively awarded to the NHL champion, which started in 1927. No active coach has won it twice, and the only ones to have done it twice in the expansion era (since 1968) are Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Glen Sather and the father of Bylsma's general manger (Fred Shero). Byslma could join some elite company.
As mentioned above, the Islanders power play was dangerous all season long, led by Tavares. When they score on the man advantage, good things usually happen -- they were 15-3-1 when converting.
Tavares isn't New York's lone weapon. Streit is an excellent veteran quarterback, and Moulson is willing to go the dirty areas to knock home loose pucks.
Nielsen remains an excellent penalty killer for New York and averaged close to two-and-a-half shorthanded minutes a game. He's usually accompanied up front by Grabner, who has the ability to steal pucks and create breakaways.
The Penguins finished the regular season with the second-best power-play conversion rate in the NHL at 24.0 percent, and that was despite missing either Crosby or Malkin (or both) for large chunks. If everyone is healthy, the top unit could be Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, Neal or Kunitz and Letang.
The penalty kill, at 79.1 percent, might be an underrated weakness. It will be interesting to see if some of Bylsma's lineup decisions are based on who can help out on the PK, because the options on the power play are quite plentiful. For instance, Craig Adams led the forwards in shorthanded ice time per game, which could make him a safe bet to have a spot on the fourth line.
John Tavares: The 22-year-old was born to play at this time of year, and now he gets his first chance to really shine. Don't be surprised in the least if No. 91 takes this opportunity and runs with it. Tavares provides the "battle level" his coach seeks night in and night out, and that's what you need to be successful in the spring.
Sidney Crosby: To be clear, the Penguins can advance to at least the second round (and maybe even the third) without Crosby -- the roster is that loaded. And Fleury is the guy who faces the most pressure in the opening round, but Vokoun is a very nice Plan B, to the point where Pittsburgh can avoid an upset even if Bylsma has to change goalies. So making sure Crosby is healthy and comfortable with whatever extra protection he has to wear for his jaw when he ready to return is important for this team with Cup aspirations.
WHAT IF …
Penguins will win if … The forwards and defense remain committed to goal prevention, and there is no rash of injuries. There could also be a Jaroslav Halak-esque goaltending performance, but even that might not derail them.
Islanders will win if … They stick to the game plan and continue to play a solid defensive game. The offense will be there for them, so it's simply up to the Islanders to keep the puck out of their net. Some of that, obviously, will depend on Nabokov, who may have to steal a game or two in order for the Islanders to win their first playoff series in 20 years.
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