After eighty-two regular-season games, eight preseason games, three weeks of training camp and seven months of grinding, the fun really begins, as the New York Islanders take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the First Round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, beginning on Wednesday night.
The Islanders enter the series as the #2 seed in the Metropolitan Division, against the #3 seeded Penguins. As the two-seed, the Isles have home-ice advantage for the first time since 1988. This will be the fifth playoff series between two clubs (1975, 1982, 1993, 2013) and first since 2013.
"They have a lot of pieces, but we finished second for a reason," Mathew Barzal said. "This group battles. We have a lot of competitiors on this team, we've practiced hard all year and have proven ourselves and beat good teams all year. We're excited for the opportunity."
Stay tuned to NewYorkIslanders.com and @NYIslanders for in-depth and up-to-date coverage of the entire series. First, a primer to get you ready for all things Isles-Penguins.
"The Coliseum definitely has that older building type of feel," Cal Clutterbuck said. "It's one of the few buildings left in the league that has the unique and home flavor to us. I know it's not a great place for opposing teams to come in and play. It's an advantage for us forsure."
The Islanders and Penguins each went 2-1-1 in the regular season series. The Islanders won both games of a home-and-home set early in the season - highlighted by Thomas Greiss' OT poke check on Sidney Crosby - while the Penguins won the second two meetings in December.
KEY TO THE SERIES: ISLES DEFENSE VS PITTSBURGH OFFENSE
This series will be a clash of styles, as the Islanders league-leading defense will be put to the test against a high-octane Penguins offense.
One year after allowing a league-high 296 goals (including shootout winners), Barry Trotz overhauled the Isles' defensive game. The Islanders allowed a league-low 196 goals, 100 fewer than the year before, becoming the second team in NHL history to go from worst to first in one season. They also led the league with 11 shutouts, a club record, blanking the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals along the way.
The Isles don't score a lot of goals (their 2.72 per game was 22nd during the regular season), so they rely on their structure and work ethic to grind out low-scoring wins. When they are on their game, they can bottle up even the most potent attacks.
Trotz has seemingly found his preferred pairings heading into the postseason in Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk, Ryan Pulock-Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield-Devon Toews. The Isles coach has looked to strike a balance pairing a puck transporter with a more physically-minded defenseman. Still, the Isles success - both defensively and offensively - is predicated on playing a team game.
"This is as good a collective group as far as being unselfish and wanting success first," Isles President and GM Lou Lamoriello told Hockey Central on Monday. "This is as good a group that I've been around that is willing to give up their own individual identity for the success of the team."
In contrast to the Isles defensive play, the Penguins are the sixth highest-scoring team in the NHL averaging 3.30 goals-per-game. The Penguins have a host of gamebreakers in Sidney Crosby (100 points), Phil Kessel (82 points), Jake Guentzel (40 goals), Evgeni Malkin (72 points) and Kris Letang (56 points), so there's plenty of offense to go around in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are middle-of-the-pack defensively, ranked 14th in the NHL with 241 goals against this season. Their offense is their calling card.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Mathew Barzal led the Islanders with 62 points (18G, 44A) in his sophomore season. Barzal traded individual stats (85 points in his rookie season) for team success, but remains a highly-skilled and dynamic offensive presence. Barzal shines in big moments and is eager for his first taste of playoff hockey. He's the set-up man on the Isles top line with leading goal scorer Anders Lee (28 goals) and Jordan Eberle, which has proven to be an effective trio down the stretch.
Ryan Pulock has emerged as one of the Islanders top defensemen this season. Pulock led the Isles blueliners in goals (9), assists (28) and points (37), while leading the team overall with 22:22 TOI/GP. He's developed his overall game and plays in all situations for the Isles and has formed a solid partnership with Adam Pelech.
THE IDENTITY LINE:
Barry Trotz leaned heavily on Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck this season, what he's nicknamed the Islanders identity line. They embody the Isles grinding, hard-working mentality are a near lock to take the opening face off in every game.
This line has evolved since their first incarnation. They'll still play Crosby and Malkin tough, but can provide some offense as well. Cizikas doubled his previous career with 20 goals this season, while Cal Clutterbuck chipped in 23 points, his most since 2015-16.
Sidney Crosby led the Penguins with 100 points (35G, 65A) this season, hitting the century mark for the sixth time in his career and first since 2013-14. The Penguins captain doesn't need too much of an introduction at this point, with 1216 points (446G, 770A) in 943 games, three Stanley Cups, two MVPs and a pair of Conn Smythe trophies - among others - on his resume.
Crosby has 113 points (36G, 77A) in 66 career games against the Islanders. He had five points (2G, 3A) against the Isles this season.
Most NHLers would sign up for 72 points in 68 games, but Evgeni Malkin considered 2018-19 to be a down year for him personally after recording 98 last season. Like Crosby, Malkin is long established as one of the league's elite talents. He hit the 1000-point mark this season and has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe under his belt. Malkin has 72 points (28G, 44A) in 61 games against the Islanders.
Jake Guentzel scored a career-high 40 goals this season, leading the Penguins in goals, while finishing tied for 12th in the NHL overall. Guentzel set new highs in goals, assists (36) and points (76) playing alongside Crosby, adding another high-end offensive piece to the Penguins offense. Guentzel had five assists in four games vs the Isles this season.
The Penguins boast one of the top-five power plays in the NHL, converting at 24.6%. The top unit of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang and Patric Hornqvist is a potent one and have played together for the past five seasons. While the power play is dynamic, the Penguins have allowed a league-high 15 shorthanded goals against.
The Islanders power play ranked 29th during the season, converting at 14.5%. The Penguins are tied for third in the NHL with 12 shorthanded goals.
The Isles penalty kill is tied for 16th in the NHL at 79.9% while the Penguins are tied for 19th at 79.7% - a virtual tie.
Regardless of who Barry Trotz starts in game one, the Islanders will be in good hands. Both Robin Lehner (25-13-5, 2.18 GAA, .930 SV%, 6 SO) and Thomas Greiss (23-14-2, 2.28 GAA, .927 SV%, 5 SO) had tremendous seasons, culminating with the William M. Jennings Trophy.
Both goalies rank in top-five in GAA and SV% in the NHL and combined for an Islanders-record 11 shutouts this season. Both set career-highs in shutouts, while Lehner's 25 wins also marked a new career-best.
The two goalies have split the regular season duties, so it's unclear who will get the nod in Game One. That'll be guarded like a state secret until warmups, but Trotz insists there's no bad decision.
"There's a little bit of a bond there and I think there's a little bit of competition there, but friendly competition," Trotz said. "They enjoy each other's company, they support each other and our goalie department has done a teriffic job with them and they are very comfortable. We have been consistent in making it predictable for them, so they can be the goaltenders and people they can be... They've pushed each other and I can't make a bad decision."
As far as playoff experience goes, Greiss led the Islanders to the second round of the 2016 playoffs. Lehner's NHL playoff experience is limited to two games during the 2013 playoffs with Ottawa, but the Swedish goaltender does have a Calder Cup on his resume, so he's been on a deep run in the American League.
The Penguins will counter with Matt Murray, who appeared in 50 games for the Penguins this season, going 29-14-6 with a 2.69 GAA, a .919 SV% and four shutouts.
Murray has a pair of Stanley Cups on his resume, backstopping the Penguins to consecutive Cups in 2016 and 2017. He has the most playoff experience - and success - of the four goalies in this series.
The Islanders got to Murray this season, chasing him in a 6-3 win on Oct. 30, while scoring a 3-2 shootout win on Nov. 1. Backup Casey DeSmith was in goal for both Penguins wins over the Isles this season. Murray, who missed some time early in the year with a lower-body injury, won 25 of his final 39 starts this season.