First Round Preview: East Division

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With the playoffs set to begin on Saturday, we'll be analyzing each of the upcoming first round series, starting with the East Division.

(1) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VERSUS (4) NEW YORK ISLANDERS

The Pittsburgh Penguins have won the Stanley Cup three times during the Sidney Crosby era, but they’ve collapsed come playoff time in recent years and that was exemplified back in 2019 when the New York Islanders swept them in the first round. Will things be any different this time around?

The Penguins will bring the same core to the table, but there have been some noteworthy changes. The question is if change is good in this case. Take each team’s goaltending situation for example. Back in 2019 it was Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray versus Robin Lehner and that was the defining difference in the series. When Murray wasn’t horrible, Lehner was brilliant, holding the Penguins to just a goal in each of the final three contests. It was Lehner’s career changing campaign and it wasn’t at all surprising that the Islanders’ had a decisive edge in goal. This time around the names are different, but the reality is the same: the Islanders have the better goaltender.

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Tristan Jarry had an up-and-down campaign for the Penguins, finishing with a 2.75 GAA and .909 save percentage in 39 contests. He certainly had his moments and to his credit he was better in the second half of the campaign, but when you contrast him with the Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov, who posted a 2.04 GAA and .929 save percentage in 36 games, it’s clear who had the better season. In a playoff series anything can happen and if your goaltender gets hot, then that can be the difference, so it would be wrong to write off Jarry, but on paper at least, the Islanders are once again ahead in terms of goaltending.

It’s worth noting though that the Islanders needed to rely on Lehner and their defense because they wouldn’t have been able to compete blow-for-blow with the Penguins if things got out of hand offensively. In 2018-19, the Penguins had one of the league’s top teams offensively, led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Phil Kessel. All four of those forwards finished with 72 points or better while the Islanders’ offensive leader was Mathew Barzal, who had 18 goals and 62 points. The Islanders were able to minimize the damage that high-powered offense could do, but will they be able to accomplish that feat again this year?

First off, the Penguins don’t have Kessel anymore and another major presence from 2018-19, Patric Hornqvist, is also gone. However, Pittsburgh is arguably an even better offensive team this time around. In addition to still having Crosby, Malkin, and Guentzel, Bryan Rust has developed into a major offensive threat while Jared McCann (who was around in 2019, but was less settled into the Penguins), Kasperi Kapanen, and recent acquisition Jeff Carter give the Penguins a lot of extra threats to put out the ice. In 2018-19 the Penguins featured star power, but this time around they have more offensive depth in addition to those stars. That makes the task of the Islanders’ defenders and Varlamov meaningfully more difficult than the one they had two years ago.

On the Islanders’ side of things, their offense continues to be lackluster. It’s not terrible. Barzal is still a fine top line forward and Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle provide the Islanders with some depth. But while the Penguins averaged 3.45 goals per game in the regular season, the Islanders finished with 2.71. That’s a somewhat wider gap than 2018-19 when the Penguins averaged 3.30 goals per game to the Islanders’ 2.72.

Ultimately this is still very much an offense versus defense and while that scenario often favors the team with the better defense, that’s not always how these things play out. The Penguins will have their work cut out for them, but as we saw during the regular season, they absolutely are capable of solving the Islanders and while the story isn’t dramatically different from what it was two years ago when these teams faced off, the ending could be different this time around.

Players To Watch

Jeff Carter – Carter has really stepped up since joining the Penguins, scoring nine goals and 11 points in 14 games. He’s fit in well and while he’s not the star he once was, he might be enough to tip the scales in the Penguins’ favor. It certainly doesn’t hurt that, like many of the Penguins, he has plenty of playoff experience of his own. He’s played in 120 postseason games between his stints with Philadelphia and Los Angeles and played an important role in the Kings’ two championships, especially in 2014 when he scored 10 goals and 25 points in 26 playoff games.

Tristan Jarry – As mentioned above, the Islanders have the edge in goaltending, but a strong showing from Jarry would make a huge difference for the Penguins. The 26-year-old has just one postseason game under his belt, so he’s largely entering into unknown territory. It’s worth noting though that he held his own in his only playoff start to date, stopping 20 of 21 shots in what was ultimately a 2-0 loss to Montreal in last year’s qualifying round.

Mathew Barzal – Part of the Penguins’ strength is the sheer volume of options they have up front. If Crosby’s having a bad game, there’s always Malkin, if Malkin isn’t available, there’s Guentzel and so on. The Islanders aren’t devoid of offensive depth, but they only have one real offensive star and that’s Barzal. If the Penguins are able to shutdown Barzal then that could be the series, but that’s far easier said than done. Barzal stepped up in each of his first two playoff campaigns, recording seven points in eight games in 2019 and 17 points in 22 contests last year.

Kyle Palmieri – The Islanders acquired Palmieri from New Jersey to bolster their offensive depth, but it hasn’t worked out as they hoped. From 2015-16 through 2019-20, he recorded at least 24 goals and 44 points in each campaign, and he was having another respectable season with eight goals and 17 points in 34 contests before he was traded. After the move, he scored just two goals and four points in 17 games with the Islanders. It’s been a big letdown, but ultimately it will have all been worth it if he’s able to bounce back in the playoffs.

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Additional Series Notes

The Penguins had one of the most effective power plays this season at 23.7% while the Islanders were a mediocre 18.8%. On the penalty kill though the story is flipped with the Islanders successfully killing 83.7% of their penalties compared to the Penguins’ 77.4%.

Every team is better when they have the lead, but that’s especially true for Pittsburgh. The Penguins were 22-3-1 when up after one period and 25-1-1 if they held the lead through 40 minutes. In other words, the Islanders need to start their games on time if they want to stay in this series.

The Islanders have one of the most accomplished coaches of all-time in Barry Trotz, though most of his playoff success has come in recent years. He won the Stanley Cup with Washington in 2018 and took the Islanders to the Eastern Conference Final last year. He’s going into this series with 72 career postseason wins as a head coach, which is good for 15th place all-time.

If we’re going to highlight Trotz though, we have to mention Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. While the Penguins’ 2019 and 2020 playoff runs were disappointments, he did guide Pittsburgh to their back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017. The only other active head coaches with multiple championships in that role are Darryl Sutter and Joel Quenneville.

The Islanders’ pursuit of a championship was made harder when Anders Lee was shutdown for the rest of 2020-21 with a torn ACL. He would have otherwise been an important part of their offense.

Pittsburgh might enter the playoffs without Mike Matheson (face) and Brandon Tanev (upper body). Both have been skating recently and appear to be day-to-day at this point, but their status for Game 1 isn’t known.

(2) WASHINGTON CAPITALS VERSUS (3) BOSTON BRUINS

The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018 and the Boston Bruins made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019, but both team’s are running out of competitive years left with their respective cores. In Washington Nicklas Backstrom is 33-years-old, T.J. Oshie is 34, and Alex Ovechkin is 35. In Boston Brad Marchand is 33-years-old, Tuukka Rask is 34, and Patrice Bergeron is 35. Zdeno Chara, who went from the Bruins to Capitals before the season started, is 44-years-old.

This might not be the last hurrah for these two franchises before time catches up with them, but these are players who understand they’re running out of chances. They have to make this one count. Unfortunately for both of them, their playoff road is off to a difficult start.

Neither Washington or Boston would look out of place in the Stanley Cup Final, so to have to face each other right off the bat will make things difficult. However, just because they’re both high-end teams with tons of playoff experience and aged, but still effective stars doesn’t mean they’re built the same.

The Capitals are an offensive juggernaut through-and-through. That’s been their staple throughout the Ovechkin era and this season was no different. Backstrom led to team with 15 goals and 53 points in 54 games while John Carlson, Oshie, and Ovechkin also finished with at least 42 points each.

A big part of their offensive secret though isn’t their stars, it’s their depth. Washington had 12 different players reach the 20-point milestone and 18 finish with at least 10 points. By contrast, Boston had eight players reach the 20-point mark and 11 record at least 10 points. That’s a pretty significant difference and what it means is that the Bruins can’t simply silence Washington’s star forwards in order to shutdown that offense. Washington can generate scoring threats from top to bottom.

The Bruins might still be up to the task though. They were one of the top defensive teams this season. They also have a lot of interesting goaltending options. Tuukka Rask will presumably start in Game 1 given his experience. He had a solid 2.28 GAA and .913 save percentage in 24 starts. They also have the luxury of an overqualified backup in Jaroslav Halak, but Jeremy Swayman will enter the playoffs as the team's understudy. The rookie has been incredible since getting called up by Boston with a 7-3-0 record, 1.50 GAA, and .945 save percentage in 10 starts. Rask will still almost certainly be the Bruins’ choice in goal, but if he runs into problems Boston has the option of switching over to the hot hand.

Washington’s goaltending situation isn’t as comfortable. Ilya Samsonov left a lot to be desired in his sophomore season, posting a 2.69 GAA and .902 save percentage in 19 contests. He was ultimately outshined by Vitek Vanecek, who had a 2.69 GAA and .908 save percentage in 37 contests. Neither has any playoff experience though and while that’s not disqualifying, it does make them significant X-Factors. In a worst case scenario the Capitals could lean on Craig Anderson, but he’ll celebrate his 40th birthday on May 21 so he’s understandably not the goaltender he was in his prime.

The Bruins also closed the offensive gap with Washington recently when they acquired Taylor Hall. He’s been the missing piece of the puzzle for Boston with eight goals and 14 points in 16 contests. To put things into perspective, before the Bruins acquired Hall they averaged 2.72 goals per game and since the trade they’ve averaged 3.41 goals per game. In fact, post-Hall trade, Boston has been doing better offensively than Washington.

Obviously Hall isn’t the sole reason for that change, but slotting him into the lineup did give the Bruins two really strong scoring lines to round out the team. It is worth noting though that six of Boston’s 17 games after acquiring Hall were against his former squad, the lowly Buffalo Sabres, which is another part of the reason for the Bruins’ recent success, but even still it’s clear that Boston is a better team now than they were a little over a month ago.

Washington would have had their hands full then, but it will be an even more difficult task now.

Players To Watch

Alex Ovechkin – One of the greatest to ever play the game, Ovechkin is actually a bit of an X-Factor in this series because he’s been dealing with a lower-body injury. He was able to return on Tuesday and log 19 minutes, but it’s possible he’s entering this series at less than 100%. Ovechkin was only able to play in two of Washington’s final nine games and in one of those contests, he was limited to 39 seconds. Of course the more optimistic way of looking at that is he’s better rested than most going into the series. Either way, he’s a crucial part of the Capitals’ attack.

Zdeno Chara – Perhaps not a key player anymore, but he’s an interesting storyline. He played for the Boston Bruins from 2006-07 through 2019-20, won the Cup with them in 2011, and spent his tenure with Boston as the team captain. However, the Bruins informed him that if he re-signed with them for the 2020-21 campaign it would be in a reduced capacity and he consequently decided to play for the Capitals instead. Even at the age of 44 he still averaged 18:17 minutes this season and of course he remains a towering presence at 6-foot-9. We’ll see what he does against his former team in what could very well be his final playoff run.

Taylor Hall – As mentioned above, Hall has been great for the Bruins since they acquired him, but that was in the regular season. What will he bring to the table in the playoffs? Hall’s spent most of his career on underperforming teams and this is consequently just his third trip to the playoffs. In a series full of players with lengthy postseason resumes, Hall has appeared in just 14 postseason games. For what it’s worth though, he has done well in them with four goals and 12 points. It’s also worth noting that he’s playing for a new contract.

Tuukka Rask – Speaking of players entering the final season of their deal, Rask is on the verge of completing his eight-year, $56 million deal. Long-term goaltending deals often don’t end well, but Rask has been effective throughout the length of his contract. That said, with Swayman’s recent success, it will be interesting to see what the Bruins do if Rask struggles. Perhaps we’ll never have to find out.

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Additional Series Notes

Special teams were the Washington Capitals’ bread-and-butter this season. They had a 24.8% success rate on the power-play and their penalty kill was 84%. Boston was effective in both regards too though with a 21.9% power-play success rate and a 86% penalty kill.

One area where the Bruins should win handily is on the draw. Boston won a league-high 55.3% of its faceoffs this season compared to Washington’s 49.2%. Bruins centers Patrice Bergeron, Sean Kuraly, and David Krejci are all high-end faceoff artists while Washington’s only strong faceoff center is Nic Dowd.

Boston has been without Ondrej Kase for most of the season because of an upper-body injury, but he is close to returning. It’s likely that Charlie Coyle (upper body) will be available for the Bruins in Game 1 too. John Moore unfortunately isn’t expected to participate in the playoffs after undergoing hip surgery.

The Capitals’ injury situation is somewhat murky. T.J. Oshie (lower body), John Carlson (lower body) are both questionable for Game 1 at the time of writing while Ilya Samsonov and Evgeny Kuznetsov are both on the COVID protocol.