On one hand, this week is uncharted territory for the Islanders. None of the players on this year’s roster appeared in the team’s last playoff series, back in 2007 against the Buffalo Sabres.
The Islanders first round opponent this time, the No. 1 seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, presents weapons up and down their lineup, like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the recently acquired Jarome Iginla.
But on another hand, going toe-to-toe with the NHL’s elite is nothing new to the orange and blue. And don’t tell the players in the room that they’re considered underdogs.
“I don't think anyone is just happy about being here,” seven-year veteran Frans Nielsen said. “We’re a really deep team too. We’re getting scoring from all our lines. Every line is playing a good two-way game. I think all the way down the lineup we're as deep as we've been since I've been here.”
The talk of the Eastern Conference has been centered around a Penguins team that won 15 consecutive games this season to earn home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and thenacquired two long-time captains in Iginla and Brenden Morrow, as well as former 30-goal scorer Jussi Jokinen. Islanders captain Mark Streit acknowledges the hill his team will have to climb to win a seven-game series against the top-seeded team in the Conference, but says such a challenge is not out of the question.
“I think they're the best team in the Eastern Conference and it's a big challenge for us, but we beat them earlier this year,” Streit said. “I don’t think anything is impossible in sports. Obviously we are the underdog but it starts 0-0.”
The captain added that while the Penguins may have more household names, the Islanders have the X-factor of being battle tested, something that comes from playing so many crucial games down the stretch just to earn a postseason berth.
“We really battled hard to make it to the playoffs,” Streit said. “For us the playoffs started a month ago. All the games meant a lot and the guys really came together and we found a way to win. We have a lot of talented, hard-working guys up front that can hurt a lot of teams as well. Pittsburgh had a great year. Obviously they have some superstars in their lineup, but I like our team too.”
The Penguins have been without Crosby since he took a puck to the face against the Islanders on March 30, and whether he makes it back in time for the start of the series or not, Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano says the Islanders approach will be the same.
“They’ve got Malkin, they’ve got (James) Neal, they’ve got a lot of dangerous guys,” Capuano said. “They put up eight in the last game against Carolina, so we know they have a pretty potent offense. We’re going to have to defend. We have to tilt the ice and try to play less time in our own end.”
Capuano added that the Islanders have the personnel to make this series a competitive affair.
“I like the guys that we have,” Capuano said. “This group has worked hard all year. We got ourselves in this situation by playing a certain way. We’ve got to keep going about our business no differently than we did the last two months of the season.”
The series begins in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, May 1, at 7:00. The game can be found locally on MSG+, and nationally on NBC Sports Network. As always, fans who want to listen to the radio feed can find it on WRHU 88.7 FM.