Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Isles an anomaly in offense-driven East Division

Penguins (1) vs. Islanders (4)

As it is with the handful of teams each year that start a little slow before hitting a heater heading into the postseason, a goaltending turnaround helped the Pittsburgh Penguins stabilize things and really hit their stride in 2021.

Tristan Jarry posted 18 wins and a .917 save percentage in 23 games since March 1 after putting up just an .894 mark over his first 14 starts, while backup Casey DeSmith earned wins in eight of his last 12 starts before missing the team's final three games with an injury, but he's expected to be back and healthy come Game 1.

On top of feeling pretty good about their crease situation heading into the series, the Pens look to be firing on all cylinders up front as well after a pair of additions have added more firepower and versatility to an already potent forward group. Two-time Cup champion Jeff Carter looks rejuvenated since coming over from the Kings on April 12, potting nine goals in 14 games while filling in admirably in the 2C role alongside last offseason's fruitful acquisition, Kasperi Kapanen. Both players, along with the Penguins' center depth, will be optimized even more with the return of an apparently healthy Evgeni Malkin, allowing Carter to move down to the 3C slot alongside Jared McCann while still-elite Sidney Crosby anchors the top unit.

Two of the game's biggest freaks in Sidney Crosby and Mathew Barzal square off in Round 1. (Getty)
Two of the game's biggest freaks in Sidney Crosby and Mathew Barzal square off in Round 1. (Getty)

The Islanders made quite a splash in the trade market themselves this season, acquiring Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils at the deadline. Unfortunately the circumstance that spurred the Isles to make the trade — a season-ending knee injury to captain and top-line winger Anders Lee — was less than ideal, but a squad like this that thrives on balance, structure and team defense much more than any one player is built to overcome setbacks such as these.

Barry Trotz has the team playing the game his way this season arguably more than in any other campaign since arriving on Long Island. As noted by The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn, the team is analytically performing at the highest level it ever has under under Trotz. Without a single skater scoring 20 goals or hitting 30 assists this season (though Mat Barzal can erupt at any time, of course) the Islanders — who finished third-best in goals against at 5-on-5 and allowed the fifth-fewest goals against on the penalty kill during the 56-game regular season, according to Natural Stat Trick — will rely on a suffocating defensive system and solid goaltending as much as ever.

What have you done for me lately?

As expected, the Penguins roll into the playoffs feeling particularly good about their surging offense, which has produced the third-most goals in the league since April 8 — just two behind the NHL-leading Golden Knights during the same span. With 13 wins over their last 17 contests to wrap up the regular season, the red-hot Penguins rode their textbook scoring prowess and some solid and consistent goaltending to the East Division crown and are as healthy and peaking as much as any NHL club heading into the tournament, which is obviously exactly where you want to be.

Unlike their counterparts, the Isles caught a bit of a rut heading into the postseason, winning only six of their final 16 games as their already finicky offense totally disappeared with the team scoring just 25 times at 5-on-5, ranking 30th in the league over that stretch. Though the befuddling disappearance of any even-strength offense from New York is certainly a large concern heading into a Round 1 matchup with a team clicking on all cylinders like the Pens right now, the Islanders can take solace in the fact that they allowed just 28 goals at 5v5 during that span with was ninth-best overall. If the defense starts to dip in any substantial way, then the Isles' chances in this series become seriously murky to say the least.

The Penguins will win if...

Their goalies don't blow it. This can always be said for basically every team to play in any Stanley Cup playoff in any year ever, but it really rings extra true against a squad as stingy defensively and low-event offensively as the Isles, where every single goal against is a slog to earn back and each "weak" tally against is that much harder to recover from.

The Islanders will win if...

Mat Barzal goes beast mode. As good as the Islanders are at defending, an offense as dangerous as Pittsburgh's can only be contained for so long. New York will need an answer when the Pens do start putting them in, and Barzal has to be that guy for the Isles to keep up.

Series Hero

This really feels like the kind of year just primed for a Carter redemption tour. My man looks rejuvenated, comfortable, and he's simply putting the puck in the net at a rate that rivals his best stretches during his Cup-winning years in L.A. He's scoring a lot and it's hard not to see him potting a few more when the moments really matter most.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

Because my "analysis" all-too-often favors chaos over reason, give me two Cody Ceci game-winners and a shutdown performance for the ages.

Prediction: Penguins in seven.

Capitals (2) vs. Bruins (3)

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the Capitals are this year, mainly because of the slew of injuries the club has had to contend with. For various health reasons including COVID-19 protocols and physical ailments, Washington was without stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and goaltender Ilya Samsonov for extended periods of time at different points in the season.

The team's ability to find goals from any number of their offensive stars on any given night has become its identity, and just like years past it's been Backstrom (55 points), Ovechkin (24 goals), Oshie (43 points) and blueliner John Carlson (44 points) leading the charge in that department. With Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and deadline addition Anthony Mantha in the mix up front and Justin Schultz on the back end, the Capitals boast a plethora of firepower at all positions, up and down their lineup, arguably more so than any team in the league right now.

If this group can get and stay healthy (that's a huge "if"), then watch out, as Washington has more than enough horses to escape this division and beyond if the goaltending can hold up. The big question is whether this balanced roster has enough to overcome multiple playoff injuries to key guys — something very few squads in history have been able to do.

Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand have been through a lot of playoff battles together, but this will be their first as opponents. (Getty)
Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand have been through a lot of playoff battles together, but this will be their first as opponents. (Getty)

With a healthy roster from top to bottom featuring a veteran-laden group that's hitting on all cylinders heading into Round 1, Boston is trending up and sitting pretty entering its matchup with the Caps.

It's been the classic story up front for Boston for most of the season, as the team's top trio of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron were once again a top-three line across most major metrics, including production, with each potting at least 20 goals and 48 points over the shortened season. Marchand has been particularly out of his mind this season, ranking third in the NHL with 69 points and sixth with 29 goals, leading the B's in scoring by a whopping 21 points. Marchand is the true star, the alpha among alphas on a Bruins team built for a lengthy playoff run.

This year's version of the B's enters the postseason with a different dimension than in seasons past, however, as the addition of superstar scorer Taylor Hall for just a second-round pick has turned the Bruins' "No. 2" line into a true complementary threat.

What have you done for me lately?

Washington closed its season with an admirable 11-4-1 record despite dealing with injuries to forwards Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Carlson and Samsonov down the stretch, along with the absence of Kuznetsov because of COVID-19 protocols. Being able to post a record like that while withstanding that many injuries during one of the toughest stretches on the shortened schedule has to be encouraging for the Capitals and a sign their depth is definitely once again their strength heading into this year's postseason. This group has to be feeling comfortable with where they're at and confident that their offensive depth can overcome any looming potential goaltending setbacks in the games ahead.

The Bruins are also entering this series on quite a run, going 12-4-1 over their last 17 contests to close out the season, with Marchand in particular lighting the scoresheet up for 14 goals and 33 points in April alone. Hall has been an absolute godsend since arriving from the Sabres, scoring eight times in 16 contests after tallying just twice in 37 games with the Sabres. Both of these teams are winning and scoring at an elite clip over the last six weeks of the campaign, teeing up what should be a fun, offensive slugfest of a series.

The Capitals will win if ...

Alex Ovechkin is Alex Ovechkin. Scoring goals is the toughest thing to do in this sport and they become even more coveted as play tightens up in the postseason, so having a guy who's still a top-three scorer in the league and the best to ever do it is an advantage the Capitals simply have to maximize to get past a deeper Bruins squad. Rookie netminder Vitek Vanecek transforming into 2006 Cam Ward for a postseason run would also go a long way.

The Bruins will win if ...

Their second line out-produces their top unit. The Bruins transformed their top six with the acquisition of Hall as the team's No. 2 trio of Hall, David Krejci (who finally has his scoring winger) and Craig Smith have been dynamic since being assembled almost immediately after Hall's arrival. With Pastrnak, Bergeron and Marchand drawing the Caps' top defensive assignments, a breakout series from Boston's Hall-led unit would be almost impossible for Washington to overcome in this one.

Series Hero

Hall is on an absolute heater since arriving in Boston, and I've seen nothing from the Capitals defensively to suggest that this trend won't continue well into Round 1.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

Curtis Lazar has been waiting for his moment to bury a Game 6 series winner in OT after logging 3:43 of ice time. It's time.

Prediction: Bruins in six.

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