The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here and one of the most interesting matchups will be the New York Islanders vs Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are in the postseason for the 13th straight season. The longest active streak in the NHL. New York, on the other hand, surprised many people and made the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-2016 season.
This will be the first playoff matchup between the two teams since 2012-2013. The Penguins won that in six games. These two teams win very differently with the Penguins being one of the highest scoring teams during the season. While the Islanders allowed the fewest amount of goals per game. With that said, let’s look at some key storylines going into this first-round series.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders
Penguins High Flying Offence
The Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders series will feature one of the best scoring teams in the league against the team that gives up the least amount of goals scored per game. New York has allowed a league-low 191 goals all situations and when you take down to just 5V5, it’s 127. Pittsburgh is sixth overall in 5v5 goals for and overall. They scored 271 goals this season, which is fifth best in the league.
Pittsburgh spreads it out over their top nine for a lot of their goals. Jake Guentzel became the first 40 goal scorer for the Penguins other than Crosby or Malkin since James Neal did it during the 2011-2012 season. Sidney Crosby had 35 goals this season, with Phil Kessel scoring 27 and Evgeni Malkin with 21.
Overall, the Penguins had eight players with 16 or more goals this season if you add Jared McCann‘s full season with Florida too (19 overall). When fully healthy, they can and most likely will split Malkin and Kessel onto their separate lines. Pittsburgh feels that by having a superstar on each line, they’re at their best. Even if that means taking Hornqvist off that third line with Simon and Bjugstad. That line had been a possession monster down the stretch but it still will likely remain good. Simon is a possession monster (55.7 CF% this season) and as long as it’s like that, that line will keep rolling in the offensive zone with Kessel on it.
For the Islanders, it’s all about doing what they’ve been doing defensively all season. They do an outstanding job at keeping teams to the perimeter and not allowing a high quality of high-danger chances. Their 1.90 goals allowed per game for the season ranks second overall for the league. Keep in mind that this is all without a bonafide number one defenseman in their lineup leading the way. New York does it by committee with their defence, having Nick Leddy, Ryan Pulock, and Devon Toews on separate pairs.
Barry Trotz has worked wonders with that defensive core, just as he did in Washington and Nashville. It’s why he’s going to be a serious candidate and perhaps the favourite for the Jack Adams trophy. One thing to keep an eye on though going into this series: New York did not play their best hockey down the stretch as they actually allowed three or more goals in 11 of their last 25 games. This will be a big test for the Islanders as they look to beat one of the best offensive teams in the league four times in a series.
A True Goaltending Duel
If you like great goaltending then this series is for you. For the Islanders, goaltending is also one of the biggest reasons why they made the playoffs. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss as a 1A-1B tandem have been superb this season. Having .930 and a .927 save percentages respectively. All situations combined, New York had the best overall save percentage in the league at .925.
At 5V5, Lehner was .934 and Greiss was even better at .937, two of the best marks in the league. Combined, it formed the best save percentage in the league at .936. It’s something that absolutely no one saw coming and it won’t be a shock when at least one is nominated for the Vezina at the end of the post-season. Greiss’s high-danger save percentage (84.76) is actually higher than Lehner’s (80.77) for the season. It still seems though that the Islanders will go with Lehner to start game one by all indications. The Islanders goaltending needs to continue to hold or almost everything will blow up in their faces.
For the Penguins, goaltending is also a strength. Matt Murray started the season below .900 for the first month, but he’s rebounded in a big way. Since his comeback on December 15th against the LA Kings, he’s been one of the best goaltenders in the league. His 5v5 save percentage jumped to over .930 ever since coming back. One of the best marks in the league. Over Pittsburgh’s last 25 games (Murray having started almost all of them), Pittsburgh’s 5V5 save percentage is .945, which is top three overall. Murray’s high-danger save percentage for the year was 83.94% and down the stretch, it was over 86%. This series could have the best goaltending we’ll see in the first round.
Special Teams battle
Special teams are always big, but they become magnified once the playoffs hit. The penalties that get called in the playoffs drop a ton from how many are called during the regular season. With that, teams have to take advantage of the few opportunities that they’ll have on the man advantage. This will no doubt be an influencer in the Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders series.
For Pittsburgh, they have one of the most potent power plays in the league. That can be said for them almost every season as long as they have Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, and Letang on it. For the season, they ranked fifth in the league at 24.6% on the man advantage. That was with giving up 15 shorthanded goals for the season, which was tied with the Boston Bruins for the most in the league.
That was also with splitting up the units because they weren’t producing for stretches. Or kept giving up shorthanded goals at the beginning of the season. New York’s penalty kill ranks just 18th in the league at 79.9% so they can definitely be had in that area. This isn’t the power play you want to give too many chances to and the Islanders definitely know it. On the other hand, the Penguins shorthanded troubles that plagued them during the first half can’t show up in this series. New York has players on that unit that can make you pay such as Casey Cizikas who had 20 goals this season.
Islanders Special Teams
The Islanders actually had one of the worst power plays in the league this season at just 14.5%. That ranked 29th overall in the league. It’s strange that it was so low considering they have Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle at their disposal. Lee is one of the best net-front players in the league as he had 28 goals this year and will present a big challenge to the Penguins PK.
Getting him out of the way to ensure that Murray sees each shot is a must as he’s always there to clean up the garbage. Barzal is one of the best young players in the league and was the only Islanders player to put up 60 points this season. Only three of his goals came on the power play but he’s still very, very dangerous. Eberle and Bailey also didn’t have that good of power-play numbers since the entire team struggled but Pittsburgh also cannot give them time and space.
Pittsburgh’s penalty kills splits are going to have to even out for this series as they’re one of the best teams on it in road games. However, are one of the worst teams on it in home games. Maybe it’s a sigh of relief that they start the series at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island for that reason.
This series will be closer than people expect. It’s not going to be a series where the Penguins just steamroll the Islanders like some are predicting. New York is not going to back down but Pittsburgh will still take this series as their high-end talent will just be too much for the Islanders to overcome.
Penguins in six.