Through three games, the New York Islanders defense has managed to slow down the Pittsburgh Penguins offense to a near halt. Both teams have 103 shots on net, but the Penguins have only managed five goals in the series, compared to 11 for the Isles.
The Isles have lowered the Penguins shots in all three games, from 44 in a wide-open Game 1, to 33 in Game 2 and down to 26 in Game 3, while also limiting the number of quality scoring chances. Despite going up against a high-octane offense and a roster full of multiple-time Stanley Cup champions, the Isles have bred success by playing to their identity and have forced the Penguins to largely play their game.
"Our focus has always been on the process," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "One game at a time and one shift at a time. We've just played the way we've played. We haven't had to make a lot of adjustments in our game in probably the last 10 games because we believe in our game."
Video: Practice Update 4/15: Barry Trotz
The Isles defensive mindset, which prides itself on discipline, a relentless forecheck, forcing turnovers and keeping teams in their own zone, has perplexed the Penguins. And it's fitting that the Isles' 'Identity Line' - consisting of Matt Martin Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck - has found success in a head-to-head matchup against Pittsburgh's top liners in Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
"We just try to keep it simple, get it in, be physical and try to create turnovers," Martin said. "[There's] nothing sexy about it. We just play a pretty simple, hard-nose game. Obviously, against their top guys you want to be hard on them. You don't want to be turning pucks over in the neutral zone. You don't want them to break out easy because they turn offense pretty quickly. We've done a good job of staying above them, keeping pucks in and making them spend time in their own end before they can go down and play offense."
Crosby and Guentzel have established a lethal rapport the past three seasons, but the Isles have managed to shut both of them down through three games. Crosby, who reached the 100-point mark for the sixth time in his 14-year NHL career, doesn't have a point in the series and is minus-four. Crosby's four-game drought vs the Islanders (dating back to the final regular season meeting) is the longest of his career vs the Isles. Guentzel, who scored 40 goals (76 points) this season, is minus-three and also without a point.
"I think it's just that our structure is so detailed, and we're all committed to it," defenseman Devon Toews said. "It makes it difficult for their high skilled players to get through. They don't have to get through one or two guys, they have to get through three, four or five of us. That's difficult for teams to do with us just pressuring them, collapsing and making them go through us. We pride ourselves on our defensive structure and our neutral structure, making it tougher for teams to break in with speed and room."
The Islanders have had success by forcing the Penguins outside and hindering the quality of looks in the danger areas. When chances arise, goaltender Robin Lehner, who has 98 saves on 103 shots, has been solid and the Isles have been stingy about clearing rebounds. In turn, the Isles have capitalized on opportunities on the fly that resulted from their ruthless defensive efforts.
"Our game plan is to defend hard and turn that into offense," Brock Nelson said. "They have a lot of fire power over there, so we don't want to give them too many transitional pucks. They're dangerous when they get extended periods of time in our end and power play opportunities.... It starts with our d-zone and how hard we defend and try to get turnovers and we can try and turn that into offense. We've got a couple of guys in the back end that can get up in the rush. You're not going to get many [chances] so you want to capitalize on them."
Video: 3 Down 1 to Go
The Islanders allowed the fewest goals against (2.33 per game) during the regular season and the playoffs have just been a continuation of that defensive identity. The stingy, structured play has the Isles leading their First-Round series 3-0 - the first time they've had a 3-0 lead since the 1983 Stanley Cup Final.
But as far as the Islanders are concerned, there is still work to be done and closing out a series against a team with multiple Stanley Cup champions on the roster is no easy feat. Keeping a short-memory, focusing on their defensive game and the task at hand is all the Islanders are concerned about heading into Game 4.
"Tomorrow night's game is as important as any," Martin said. "I'd imagine that they're going to bring their best and we just have to be ready for it. As long as we continue to play our game, be structured and detailed, the game generally takes care of itself. We just have to stay the course. Nothing is obviously done yet."