The last time the New York Islanders advanced out of the first round they then went on to eliminate the highly-favored Pittsburgh Penguins. David Volek's goal in overtime of Game 7 in 1993 to send New York to the conference final is forever etched in both franchise's histories. Twenty years later they meet again and both teams enter in different states of existence. The Penguins are one of the NHL's powerhouse teams, while the Islanders are the up-and-comers. Hmm, sounds a lot like 1993, doesn't it?
Pittsburgh took the season series 4-1, but aside from a 6-1 loss in March, the Islanders' losses were close. They last played March 30, two days before the Islanders started a month where they would go with just one loss in regulation and fight to earn the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It's a different team that the Penguins will face over the next week and a half.
Sidney Crosby will likely come back at some point in the series, adding to Pittsburgh's highly-powered arsenal. Can the Islanders withstand their offensive weapons and provide another monumental upset 20 years after another they managed the same feat?
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs. New York Islanders (8)
May 1: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7:30 p.m. ET.
May 3: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins 7 p.m. ET.
May 5: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders, 12 p.m. ET.
May 7: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET.
May 9: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins* 7 p.m. ET.
May 11: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders* TBD
May 12: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins* TBD
You don't need much explaining about the Pittsburgh forward group. You know the names. You know what they can bring: 3.38 goals per game (1st in the NHL). When general manager Ray Shero can go out and trade for Western Conference captains Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla, and they'll be part of the team's offensive depth and not the focus, you know it's a pretty loaded group. Eight Penguins hit double digits in goals scored. Evgeni Malkin (9) would have been the ninth, but injuries limited him to 31 games. Sidney Crosby's health is an obvious question. He's been practicing with the team and but will be out for Game 1 on Wednesday. His eventual addition will just be an added bonus.
Down the lineup, the Penguins will also rely on contributions from their bottom six like Brandon Sutter (11 goals) and Matt Cooke (21 points) for not only offense, but to help shut down the Islanders' top guns. Since coming over at the trade deadline Jussi Jokinen has been hot with seven goals and 11 points in 10 games.
For as much as the Penguins' offensive weapons are spread out, the Islanders rely heavily on the duo of John Tavares (28 goals) and Matt Moulson (44 points). The pair combined for 43 of the 72 goals provided by their forwards this season. The total production up front was good enough for seventh in the NHL (2.81 per game). But to beat the Penguins, the Islanders will need continued production from their depth.
Josh Bailey (10 points) and Kyle Okposo (9 points) all chipped in during the Islanders' stretch in April when they went 8-1-4 to clinch a playoff spot. Factor in Brad Boyes (35 points) and Michael Grabner (16 goals) and the Islanders will need each of them to part of their offensive game in order to succeed.
There were plusses and minuses for the Islanders' defense corps this season. The plusses: Lubomir Visnovsky's addition (14 points, 22:48 TOI) brought another veteran presence in the back along with captain Mark Streit and helped the power play (8 PP points). Brian Strait, claimed off waivers from the Penguins in January, was another solid pickup for general manager Garth Snow before and after his ankle injury. Their biggest issue, for most of the season, was the third period. Finishing fourth in third period goals allowed there was a time when they were far away the leaders. But over the past month the Islanders tightened up in the final 20 minutes of games and only let in three goals in their final 11 third periods before clinching a playoff berth. Their improved final period defensive play will be put to the test against a Penguins team who was second in the NHL with 64 third period goals.
Brooks Orpik may miss some time with an injury, but the Penguins still have Kris Letang (38 points), an improved Paul Martin (25:19 TOI) and an apparent good luck charm in Mark Eaton, who joined the Penguins on March 2 and the team has since posted a 20-3 record since.
A year ago, the Penguins defense was a sieve, allowing 30 goals in six games against the Flyers. That embarrassment can't happen again. Shero brought in Doug Murray from San Jose to help with their depth and he's fit nicely into their system. And in case you were wondering, the Penguins were tied for fourth-best in least third period goals allowed with 36.
Marc-Andre Fleury (23 wins, 2.39, .916) had another strong regular season, but these days, it's what he does in the playoffs that matter most. The good news is that there's no way he could play as bad against the Islanders as he did against the Flyers in last year's opening round. That series should serve as not only a learning experience, but also a warning to Fleury. Now, instead of Bylsma leaving his netminder hung out to dry, he can quickly move to Tomas Vokoun if he so chooses. The veteran was solid in his 17 starts, providing adequate coverage when Fleury needed a game off.
Jack Capuano only has one option in net and that's Evgeni Nabokov. The player on the Islanders with the most postseason experience (80 games) was the team's defensive rock down the stretch as they fought for a playoff spot. In nine of his last 12 starts, Nabokov allowed two goals or less. He won 23 games during the regular season and seeing as he's due a new contract after this season, a solid performance this spring will go a long way for his bank account.
Does Their Season Deserve an Asterisk?
If this season went another 34 games, the Penguins might have threatened several offensive NHL records. For the Islanders, this was the season they've been slowly building toward. It was a matter of time before their young players would graduate to the NHL and reach their potentials. This is the start of a good run for the Islanders organization. Things will brighten even more once they move to Brooklyn in 2015, or earlier.
Jack Capuano and Dan Bylsma know each other well. They were assistants with the Islanders in 2005-06, then went their separate ways. Capuano spent time in the AHL with the Islander's minor league affiliate before taking over for Scott Gordon in 2010. Bylsma went behind the bench for Pittsburgh's AHL team in Wilkes-Barre before getting called up to replace Michel Therrien and winning the Cup in 2009.
The Penguins boast the NHL's second-best power play unit and once Sidney Crosby is fully healthy, Dan Bylsma will have his captain, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, James Neal, and Kris Letang hop over the boards when on the man advantage. No wonder they finished with a 24.7 percent success rate. Their penalty kill, on the other hand, isn't so hot. As pointed out by the Tribune Review this week, Pittsburgh's PK has declined every postseason since 2008, going from 87.1 percent to 47.8 percent last playoffs. They were 24th (79.6 percent) during the regular season, dropping from 87.8 percent last season.
That penalty kill issue could be a factor for the Islanders as they capitalized on 19.9 percent of their man advantage opportunities this season. Led by Tavares (9 power play goals) and Moulson (8 PPGs), their power play unit ranked 11th in the NHL. Shorthanded, the Islanders didn't fare as well, killing just 80.3 percent of power plays. More troubling, Grabner, once a shorthanded scoring dynamo, has just two SHGs over the past two seasons after netting six in 2010-11.
30 Seconds to Mars...
Version 38.0 of "Black and Yellow"...
Prediction: Penguins in 5.
The Penguins have been rolling, having lost just four times in their final 27 games, while the Islanders have been playing playoff-type hockey for the past few weeks. If Pittsburgh's stars play to their abilities, and they can shut down the Tavares/Moulson line, they'll have an easy time dispatching the Islanders. But, New York enters this series without any pressure and if their inexperienced players are able to temper their nerves playing in the playoffs for the first time, they can give Pittsburgh some trouble. It's not a crazy thought that New York will make this a series, but given what happened a year ago, the Penguins won't allow a series to get out of their control.