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First Round Series Preview: Islanders vs Penguins

NewYorkIslanders.com breaks down the First-Round series between the Islanders and Penguins

by Cory Wright and Sasha Kandrach @NYIslanders / NewYorkIslanders.com

Now, the fun begins. 

The New York Islanders kick off the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a First-Round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, beginning on Sunday afternoon in the Steel City.

After a grueling 56-game season against a loaded East Division, the fourth-place Islanders take on the first-place Penguins. The Islanders, who are in the postseason for a third-consecutive year, are looking to build off their run to the Eastern Conference Final last fall, while the Penguins are coming off a loss in the Qualifying Round. 

This also marks the second time in three years these teams have met in the playoffs, with the Islanders sweeping the Pens in 2019. This will be the sixth time the Islanders and Penguins have met in the postseason, with New York winning four of the previous five.

Get teed up for Isles-Pens and stay tuned to NewYorkIslanders.com for coverage of the Islanders 2021 playoff run.  


SERIES SCHEDULE:


SEASON SERIES:

The Islanders went 2-4-2 against the Penguins this season, going 2-0-2 at home and 0-4-0 on the road in Pittsburgh. Five of the eight games were decided by one goal. 

Mathew Barzal (3G, 3A), Brock Nelson (3G, 3A), Josh Bailey (1G, 5A) and Nick Leddy (6A) all tied for the team lead with six points. Jordan Eberle led the team with four goals. 

Pittsburgh's big guns carried the offense for the Penguins, as Kris Letang (4G, 5A) and Sidney Crosby (3G, 6A) led the team with nine points each, while Bryan Rust led the team with five goals. 


KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Islanders Defense vs Penguins Offense:

Stingy play has been the Islanders' calling card under Barry Trotz and 2020-21 was no exception. The Islanders allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL this season (128 including shootout losers), which was ahead of their pace in the Jennings-winning 2018-19 season. 

The Islanders led the league with 10 shutouts and allowed the fewest goals against in the third period this season (36), so they were one of the best teams at closing out games. The Isles were 29-3-5 when tied or leading after two periods.

The Islanders led the East Division in hits (1,455) and blocks (797) this season and that type of commitment will be needed to stifle one of the NHL's most potent teams in Pittsburgh. 

"We're going to have to go to the hard areas, be disciplined, do all the things to our identity to a tee and hopefully get them out of their identity," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "Usually he playoffs is all about being patient. It's not patient when you're backing up, it's staying aggressive, do the right things, stay patient and don't try to force things that aren't there."

Pittsburgh averaged the second-most goals-per-game in the NHL this season (3.45), so they'll look to outgun the Islanders. Pittsburgh's 25 goals were the most any team scored against the Islanders this season.

"They've got three, or even four lines that are capable of scoring," Trotz said. "You don't really get a break when you have a lineup like that. They don't give you a break and nor should they. Every moment counts and we'll have to be detailed in our defensive game and we're going to be on the right side of the puck and make good decisions with the puck. 

The Penguins scored consistently, racking up three-or-more goals in 39 of their 56 games. Pittsburgh didn't just rely on its power play either, scoring 127 goals at five-on-five, fourth in the NHL. (The Islanders were 10th with 112 goals at five-on-five this season.)

The Penguins offense starts at the top, with Sidney Crosby (24G), Jake Guentzel (23G) and Bryan Rust (22G) leading the team in goals. Kris Letang's 45 points ranked third among NHL blueliners, while Evgeni Malkin was red-hot before missing a month and a half with a knee injury. He's since put up four points in four games since returning. 

Home Ice Advantage:

Home ice was an advantage for the Isles and Pens this season, as Nassau Coliseum and PPG Paints Arena were the two toughest buildings to play in, at least statistically. 

Pittsburgh led the NHL with 22 wins and 46 points on home ice, going 22-4-2 for an .821P%, while the Islanders tied for second with 21 wins and 45 points, posting a 21-4-3 record. 

Part of that can be attributed to the comfort of playing at home and the isolation of COVID-19 protocols on the road, so the disadvantages of playing on the road could be lessened with protocols loosening for vaccinated teams. It's not a level playing field now, per Trotz, but it will help a bit for a road team and the Islanders will need to win at least one game on the road if they are to beat the Penguins.

The Islanders are welcoming back more fans for home playoff games, so while protocols may be lessening, the energy at the Coliseum should be ratcheted up for one last playoff run. 

Of note, the Islanders penalty kill was tops in the NHL on home ice this season, killing at a rate of 92.3%. The Islanders only allowed four power-play goals on 52 opportunities, while scoring three shorthanded goals. 

Pittsburgh also played a stingier game on home ice, allowing 2.18 goals-against-per-game at PPG Paints Arena (5th in the NHL), vs 3.36 on the road (25th in the NHL). 

Familiarity and Finding Your Game First:

There aren't many secrets left between the Islanders and Penguins after eight regular season meetings. These teams know each other well and Trotz isn't expecting the Penguins to deviate from what makes them successful, certainly not after winning the East Division. 

"Systematically I don't think there's a whole lot of change," Trotz said. "I would think with [Pens Head Coach Mike Sullivan] and the Penguins, they're not going to change their style. They've got a real good forward group, their defense is mobile and two inexperienced goaltenders, but they play a real good team game. They're not afraid to put it north and forecheck, they play a 200-foot game."

The Islanders don't plan to change their approach either, with Trotz saying his team plans to look inward, play to their identity and try to get to their game first. 

"You have to get to your game and stay to your game," Trotz said. "There's going to be times when the other team is going to have a push and you have to survive those pushes. I like our goaltending, our defense has been solid all year and our forwards have been pretty solid… When it's uncomfortable we've learned to be pretty comfortable with that."

The Islanders were 23-2-2 when scoring first, so getting out ahead was key to their success and fits into their shutdown system. Pittsburgh's 58 first period goals were third in the NHL, so they're a quickstart team and hold a 23-4-2 record when opening the scoring.

"They're a quickstart team," Trotz said. "Both teams are capable of giving up the first goal and recovering, but [it's about] not changing your game if you give up the first goal. When we have success we don't change our game we just stick with it. When we don't have success we change our game and that's not conducive to winning. Playing with a lead is always a benefit, the margin for error becomes a little bit more."

There's no love lost either between the clubs, who are meeting for the second time in the last three playoffs. Expect the Islanders to play physical against the Penguins and guys like Leo Komarov to get under Pittsburgh's skin after whistles.  

"They know who we are and we know who they are, so it's less adjustment for sure," JG Pageau said. "We know there are four good teams and once you get in the playoffs anyone has a chance and I truly believe in our chance to go through those teams."


ISLANDERS PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Beauvillier-Nelson-Bailey Line

The Islanders have benefited from the dynamic line of Anthony Beauvillier (15G, 13A, 28 points), Nelson (18G, 15A, 33 points), Bailey (8G, 27A, 35 points) line who combined for 96 points (41G, 55) during the regular season. While separated at times this season, the trio have played the majority of the last two seasons together and boast a balance of speed and playmaking, all while being defensively responsible and often being tasked to match up against their opposition's top lines.  

All three players have been reliable for Trotz throughout the regular season. Beauvillier, who was regularly sent over the boards to start overtime, finished the season with a team-high, five game-winning goals, including two in overtime. Nelson was not far off as he potted four game-winners of his team-best 18 goals. 

The trio ended the season riding a hot streak with points in their last seven games and will need to continue to bring that fiery offense against the Pens. 

Identity Line

There's a reason the veteran threesome of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck was dubbed the 'Identity Line' by Trotz, for their ability to out-work and out-will their opponents with their size, strength and speed. 

After battling injuries at different cadences throughout the 2019-20 regular season and postseason, the 'Identity Line' has been healthy and intact for the Islanders for almost the entirety of this year's abbreviated slate, as they all appeared in at least 50 games. In total, the trio combined 36 points (17G, 19A) and threw 484 of the Islanders' 1,455 hits which ranks third-most in the NHL and tops in the East Division. 

Cizikas and Clutterbuck have been regulars on the Islanders effective penalty kill, while Martin took reps midway through the season on one of the Islanders' power-play units and picked up two points (1G, 1A). 

They'll be a crucial line for the Islanders in the postseason as the team will rely on them for their experience, leadership, energy and drive. 

Pelech-Pulock Pairing

Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock have come a long way as a defensive pair since 2019, when they were tasked - and succeeded - at limiting Crosby as they held the Penguins' captain to just one assist through four games. 

While they'll surely still have their work cut out for them taking on Crosby and Malkin, the pair has grown more comfortable and even thrived, the last few seasons as they've routinely faced the top lines of their opposition night-after-night, shift-after-shift. 

Pulock led the Islanders in TOI this season with a nightly average of 22:26, while Pelech ranked third at 21:03. Pulock is often a fixture on one of the Islanders' power-play units, while Pelech is a stable penalty killer and even scored one shorthanded goal this season. 

Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin

The 'backbone' of any team resides in goal, and the Islanders are fortunate to have full confidence in trust in both of their goaltenders this season between veteran Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin. 

The tandem's numbers alone speak for themself. The pair combined for a total of 10 shutouts this season, as Varlamov recorded seven and tied Colorado's Philipp Grubauer for the most in the league.

Varlamov and Sorokin surrendered only 125 goals (excluding shootout losers) this season and finished in second place to Vegas' tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner (124) for the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL. 

Varlamov made 35 starts this season and earned a record of 19-11-4, a 2.04 GAA and a .929 SV%, while his fellow Russian countryman Sorokin completed his rookie campaign with 21 starts, a 13-6-3 record, a 2.17 GAA and a .918 SV%. 

Against the Pens, Varlamov saw the most action with six starts and went 1-3-2, while Sorokin made two starts and went 1-1-0. 


PENGUINS PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Guentzel-Crosby-Rust Line

Pittsburgh's top line of Guentzel, Crosby and Rust were both dominant and healthy throughout the regular season. The trio ranked in the top-five in scoring for the Pens with a combined total of 161 points (69G, 92A), with all three skaters reaching the 20-goal mark and playing in at least 55 games each. 

Thirty-three-year-old Crosby led the Penguins in scoring with his 62-point campaign (24G, 38A) through 55 games and produced at a 1.13 point-per-game average which ranked 11th-best in the NHL. In the faceoff circle, Crosby finished the season as one of the best in the NHL with a 53.6 FOW% that ranked third overall only behind Boston's Patrice Bergeron (62.3) and St. Louis' Ryan O'Reilly (58.9)

The trio not only gets it done five-on-five, but are threats on the Pens' lethal power play as they combined for 51 power-play points (17G, 34A), as Crosby led the way with 22 points (5G, 17A). 

During the eight-game regular-season series against the Islanders, the threesome had success. Crosby scored nine points (3G, 6A), Rust produced eight points (5G, 3A) and Guentzel tallied seven points (1G, 6A). 

Kris Letang

Letang, who Trotz calls one of Pittsburgh's 'three horsemen' along with Crosby and Malkin, wrapped-up the regular season with an impressive 45-point campaign (7G, 38A) which ranked third highest among all defensemen in the NHL. The 34-year-old was producing just under a point-per-game pace with an average of 0.82, ranked seventh-best among all blueliners in the league. 

Against the Islanders, Letang led the Pens in scoring as he compiled nine points (4G, 5A) - including two game-winning goals - throughout the regular-season series. 

The Penguins are a straight-line team and are most successful when they create chances off the rush and receive additional support in the attack from their defensemen, like Letang. 

Jeff Carter

Pittsburgh bolstered its depth down the middle with the acquisition at the NHL Trade Deadline of Jeff Carter from the Los Angeles Kings. In 13 games since joining the Pens on April 12, the 36-year-old centerman has racked up nine goals and 11 points and a 49.8 FOW%. 

Carter has played between Jared McCann and Frederick Gaudreau as a line that provides a balance of production with speed, size and snarl. 

"He adds size and skill, he's won a cup, all of those intangibles," Trotz said. "But he really makes the Penguins, they're three-four lines deep. Center ice is a key position for any organization and the Penguins are deep, especially at center ice with Crosby, Malkin, Carter...He gives them more depth to an already deep team."

The Islanders, more than anyone, know the importance of the center position, so this series will be key on the battle between centermen. 

Tristan Jarry:

While the Islanders hold the edge in the goaltending matchup, it's worth noting the success that Tristan Jarry posted against the Blue and Orange this season. In his six starts, Jarry backstopped the Penguins to five wins over the Islanders with a 5-1-0 record, a .917 SV% and a 2.41 GAA. 

In the regular season, Jarry made 38 starts, earned a 25-9-3 record, a 2.75 GAA and a .909 SV%. 

Video: Top plays from New York vs. Pittsburgh matchup


SPECIAL TEAMS

The Islanders and Penguins special teams units should match up well in the postseason. The Islanders finished the regular season with the 21st-ranked power play (18.8%) and the sixth-ranked penalty kill (83.7%). Pittsburgh completed the season with the fourth-best power play (23.7%) in the league and a 27th-ranked penalty kill (77.4%).

In the regular-season series, the Islanders held the advantage in special teams. Through eight games, the Islanders power play went 7-for-20 (35.0%) and their penalty kill went 15-for-20 (75.%). Pittsburgh went 5-for-20 (25%) on the power play and their penalty kill was 13-for-20 (65%). 

During the month of February - when the Islanders and Penguins faced off six times - the Islanders' power play finished the month as the top-ranked unit as it went 9-for-22 (40.9%).

Both Nelson and Pageau scored two power-play goals for the Islanders against the Pens, while Crosby recorded two power-play strikes for the Penguins as well. 


INJURY UPDATES

The Islanders enter the postseason with a healthy group. The team has been fortunate to avoid any substantial long-term injuries, outside of captain Anders Lee's season-ending ACL injury on March 11. 

Pittsburgh has battled injuries all season long at every position. On May 12, the team received full-attendance for the first time this season as goaltenders Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry (upper-body); forwards Brandon Tanev (upper-body) and Evan Rodrigues (lower-body); and defenseman Mike Matheson (upper-body) all participated. DeSmith missed the Penguins practice on May 15 with a lower-body injury and is considered day to day.

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