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Round 1 Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Islanders

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

The Penguins and New York Islanders meet in the postseason for the first time since the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Pittsburgh won that series 4-2, with the most memorable moment coming when Brooks Orpik scored the overtime series-winner in Game 6 at Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders will have home-ice advantage this time around after finishing the regular season with 103 points to the Penguins' 101.

"The Islanders will be a tough opponent," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "They're a real good team. They've had a great year. We've had some real hard-fought battles against them. It'll be a tough opponent. Having said that, I'm excited about the opportunity we have. I think we have a real good hockey team and we just have to make sure we play the game the right way, and we compete and we control what we can to be at our best."

Here are the main storylines to follow as the series progresses…

BEHIND THE BENCHES

This will be quite the matchup of the minds behind the benches, as both coaches carry championship pedigrees into the series. After Sullivan led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and '17, Barry Trotz coached Washington to hockey's holy grail in '18. The two coaches went head-to-head in the playoffs all three of those years. 

Trotz, who left Washington due to a contract dispute, is the frontrunner to win the Jack Adams Award as the league's best coach after what he's done with the Islanders. Just over a week after Trotz took over behind the bench, the Islanders lost their captain, best player and face of the franchise when John Tavares signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent. It was a big blow to the organization and team, but Trotz was optimistic, saying that they were going to be just fine and the future was bright for the young Islanders. He was right.

Under Trotz, they have completely exceeded expectations. The biggest and most noticeable change Trotz made was establishing a structure. Within that structure, the Islanders went from playing shinny-style hockey to being more defensively sound - becoming the first club in a century to finish first in goals allowed after ranking last during the previous season. The players have completely bought into the system, culture and mindset that Trotz brought to Long Island.

It's similar to what Sullivan did when he first took over the Penguins in December of 2015. Now in his fourth postseason with Pittsburgh, he's had to guide the group through a lot of adversity to get to this point. Through it all, his message to the players has been about controlling the controllables and staying in the moment. As Sullivan put it, "That's the mantra that we've had since this coaching staff has been put together and that's what we preach to our players. There's no better time than right now." 

The Pens came together as a team down the stretch and have been playing playoff-style hockey since mid-February. They are an experienced, battle-tested group who is more equipped than any team to deal with the emotional swings that the playoffs present. We'll see if that gives them an advantage over a young and hungry Islanders team playing with a big chip on their shoulder.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

One mantra Penguins goalie coach Mike Buckley has for his netminders is simple: try and get better and better every day. And that's exactly what Matt Murray has done this season. 

After a rough stretch in November followed by a month-long injury absence, Murray returned to win 25 of his last 39 starts. He played his best hockey down the stretch as the Pens battled for a playoff spot, starting 20 of the final 21 games of the regular season - including a career-high stretch of 11 straight starts to finish the year. Murray proved that he was capable of not only handling, but thriving under a big workload.

While there's no question that Murray is the Penguins' No. 1 netminder and the net belongs to him, the Isles have been relying on a tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss all season. "No one has the net," Trotz said recently. The duo has been the key behind New York's transformation into the league's No. 1 defense.

Greiss and Lehner both finished the regular season ranked in the top-five for save percentage (.927 and .930 respectively) and goals-against average (2.28, 2.13), earning a combined 11 shutouts. They won their first career William M. Jennings Trophy as the netminders who play at least 25 games for the team allowing the fewest goals. 

Trotz will have a tough decision to make as to who will start for Game 1. While Greiss was in goal for the Islanders' most recent playoff run in 2016, it looks like the less-experienced Lehner will likely get the nod as he started seven of New York's final 10 regular-season games down the stretch. 

Regardless of who goes, they'll have to find a way to translate their regular-season play into the postseason against a netminder who plays his best when the stakes are high - and has two Stanley Cup rings to show for it. At just 24 years old, Murray has already been through so much both professionally and personally, and he'll draw on all of those experiences as he looks to backstop the Pens back to their ultimate goal.

KEY MATCHUP

The Islanders' identity is being a stingy, tight-checking team with a defense-first mindset. That's how they win games, as they're not blowing anybody away with their offensive firepower, especially with Tavares gone. Mathew Barzal, their talented young center who won the Calder Trophy last year, was the only Islander to eclipse 60 points during the regular season..  

They do have some good players up front, as Barzal centers a line with Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle - both proven goal scorers in this league. But their team's strength is in how they play defense, and it's going to be a challenge for the Penguins to generate offense.

"We have to make sure that we have an element of patience in our game," Sullivan said. "We have to take what they give us, we're going to have to compete every bit as hard and we're going to have to make sure that we have a discipline to our game that we play in some structure."

Fortunately for the Penguins, their strength is scoring goals as their roster features plenty of elite talent. Sidney Crosby reached the 100-point mark for the first time since 2013-14, finishing fifth in league scoring. His linemate Jake Guentzel reached the 40-goal mark for the first time ever, ranking 13th in league goal-scoring. 

Crosby, Guentzel, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin all passed the 20-goal and 70-point mark, while Jared McCann (19 goals), Bryan Rust (18 goals) and Patric Hornqvist (18 goals) came close to hitting the 20-goal mark. In addition, Kris Letang tied his career-high with 16 goals and finished with 56 points.

"We have great experience," Malkin said. "We've played so long in the playoffs, we have guys who have won Cups here, we have leadership. We need to control the game, play with the puck, play in the offensive zone - that's our game. Just focus on our game. It doesn't matter what they do, just play our game."

SPECIAL TEAMS

One area the Islanders have struggled in this season has been special teams. Their power play finished the regular season as the NHL's third-worst, clicking at a rate of just 14.5 percent. Their penalty kill wasn't much better, ranking 18th in the league.

On paper, the Penguins should have the advantage - but it's not quite that simple. Their power play has gone through some pretty extreme highs and lows this season. Some nights, it's been unstoppable - like when the Penguins went 4-for-4 against St. Louis in December. Other nights, their execution and attention to detail hasn't been there, and it resulted in a league-high (tied) 15 shorthanded goals against. 

That being said, they still finished fifth in the league (after finishing first in 2017-18), and despite their struggles throughout the year, Sullivan keeps going back to the first unit of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist and Letang because he believes in them.

They've been really good for a long time and have scored a lot of clutch and timely goals to help the Penguins win hockey games. Those guys have been vocal about how they have a responsibility to deliver, and if they can find a way to do that in this series, it will be huge for the Penguins.

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