Second Round Preview: East Division

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As was the case in the first round, we will be previewing each second round series. Today we’re starting with the Bruins vs. Islanders ahead of their series’ schedule start at 8:00pm ET on Saturday. You can watch that game on NBC.

(3) BOSTON BRUINS VERSUS (4) NEW YORK ISLANDERS

There are no upsets in the East Division. In both first round series, the lower seed team won, but all four teams were at roughly the same level. While each had their own strength and weaknesses, none of the East Division teams were heads-and-tails above the others, as illustrated by the fact that only six points separates the first and fourth seeds. So while it would be wrong to say everyone saw a Boston Bruins-New York Islanders series coming, it would be equally wrong to say that this was an unlikely outcome.

The Bruins and Islanders featured talented rosters loaded with players who have proven themselves in the playoffs before. The Islanders made it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2020 while Boston made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019, so neither franchise is far removed from success.

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The one thing they lack though is a significant playoff history against each other. While being in the same division this year meant these squads had to play each other often, the last time they met in the playoffs was in 1983 when the Islanders bested the Bruins in the Conference Final. That was just the second time they ever met in the postseason and you would have to fast forward 18 years to today for the upcoming third time.

So how will they stack up against each other in their first playoff matchup of this generation? One thing we’re likely to see when these two teams met is some terrific defensive play and goaltending. The Islanders allowed just 2.23 goals against per game in the regular season, which made them the second stingiest team in the league, but the Bruins were close behind in fourth place at 2.39.

The idea that this might be a relatively low scoring series is largely supported by the Bruins-Islanders regular season series. While the Islanders did have a 7-2 blowout against Boston on Feb. 25, even if you factor in that contest, the Islanders averaged a mild 2.50 goals per game against Boston in the regular season and the Bruins did even worse at 2.25 goals per game. So anticipate this being a contest where goals are hard fought.

That’s not surprising given the men between the pipes. Tuukka Rask is one of the league’s best goaltenders and he was at the top of his game against the Washington Capitals, leading the Bruins to the second round with his 1.81 GAA and .941 save percentage in five playoff starts. On the Islanders’ side, Semyon Varlamov had some troubles in their series against Pittsburgh, but fortunately the Islanders also have a superb rookie goaltender in Ilya Sorokin, who took control of the series by posting a 1.95 GAA and .943 save percentage in four postseason starts.

That said, if forwards in the second round series do end up finding themselves with more space to work with, then that will likely be to the Bruins benefit. They a stronger, deeper offensive team than the Islanders. David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand provide Boston with three high-end forwards and the acquisition of Taylor Hall ensures that the Bruins will have at least two dangerous lines.

If David Krejci can get rolling on top of that, Boston will be in an even stronger position. He scored eight goals and 44 points in 51 contests during the regular season, but he was limited to two assists in five playoff games versus Washington. For what it’s worth, he was productive against the Islanders in the regular season, registering six assists in seven contests, so he seems to know how to set up goals against them.

The Islanders aren’t really built to match teams blow-for-blow in high-scoring games, though the first round was encouraging for them in that regard. Anthony Beauvillier, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey each averaged at least a point-per-game in the Islanders’ first round series against Pittsburgh. All four are important parts of the Islanders’ supporting cast, but none of them are expected to be star forwards. If they keep playing at that level, then the Islanders’ outlook will be far more favorable.

Of course, it’d also help the Islanders if Mathew Barzal stepped up. He’s New York’s one true star forward and he was limited to just three assists in six games in the first round. It’s not easy to keep him down for long though. He more than held his own in the 2019 playoffs with seven points in eight contests and he added another 17 points in 22 contests in the 2020 postseason.

Either team would make sense as the East Division champion. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if this proves to be a close series.

Players To Watch

Taylor Hall – After standing out in the regular season after being acquired by the Bruins, Hall was fine but not remarkable in the first round of the playoffs. He scored two goals and three points in five games against Washington, which is nothing to complain about, but his efforts were overshadowed by other Bruins players. Which isn’t a huge deal. On most teams that Hall has played for, he’s had to be an offensive leader, but with the Bruins he’s one of a handful of offensive stars. It will be interesting to see if he plays a bigger role in this series though, especially given that he’s also still playing for a contract.

David Krejci – Speaking of players on the final year of their contract, Krejci recorded just two assists in five games during the first round. As noted above, he was far better in the regular season and he’s typically one of the Bruins’ top forwards. They’ll certainly be hoping for more out of him in what might be his final run with the team. His six-year, $43.5 million contract will expire after this playoff run.

Ilya Sorokin – Sorokin had all of 22 games worth of NHL experience going into this playoff run, but sometimes rookie goaltenders can carry a team. Just ask Matt Murray, who won his first championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 after playing in only 13 regular season games or Jordan Binnington who was the starter in the Blues’ 2019 championship after logging 33 career regular season games. Plus, Sorokin isn’t your typical rookie. The 25-year-old goaltender was well established as an elite goaltender in the KHL before moving to the NHL. This is all to say that if Sorokin continues to build off his amazing first round performance, it wouldn’t be unprecedented or shocking, though it would nevertheless be impressive.

Mathew Barzal – As noted above, Barzal was limited to three assists in six games in the first round. The Islanders obviously still won their series against Pittsburgh, but it’s hard to envision New York finding continued success if Barzal isn’t a big part of it. The Islanders got by in the first round because some of their forwards overperformed relative to what we’ve seen from them in the past and if they start to fall to Earth then Barzal will need to counterbalance that by heating up.

Additional Series Notes

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz is one of the most experienced in the league and he currents sits in a tie for 14th place on the all-time head coach’s playoff wins list with 76. If the Islanders win at least one game in this series, then he’ll gain sole possession of 14th place from Peter Laviolette, whose Washington Capitals have been eliminated. If the Islanders win at least three games in this series, then Trotz will move up to 12th on the all-time list, having surpassed Alain Vigneault and Pat Burns.

It’s worth pointing out that the Bruins are countering behind the bench with Bruce Cassidy, who brings plenty of experience of his own. He’s in his fifth season as the Boston Bruins’ head coach and he guided them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019.

The Bruins excelled on special teams in their first round series with a 26.3% power-play success rate and a 85.7% penalty kill. The Islanders were so-so with a 18.8% power play and 75.0% penalty kill in their first round series.

Boston was also a standout in special teams during the regular season. The Bruins ranked 10th on the power play at 21.9% and second on the penalty kill at 86.0%. The Islanders excelled on the penalty kill too at 83.7%, but their power play was a mediocre 18.8%. In other words, it seems fair to give the Bruins the edge when it comes to special teams.

Although the Islanders had a 5-2-1 record against the Bruins in the regular season, Boston won the final three games of their regular season series. That’s particularly noteworthy because all three of those wins were after the Taylor Hall trade, which gave the Bruins a considerable boost. Hall also played a key role in all three of those wins, scoring at least a goal in each contest.

Kevan Miller was injured during Game 4 and won't be ready for the start of Round 2. The Bruins might also be without Jeremy Lauzon (upper body), but he is making progress. Bruins GM Don Sweeney is hopeful that Jakub Zboril (upper body) will be available at some point during the second round, but Steven Kampfer (hand), John Moore (hip), and Ondrej Kase (upper body) have been ruled out for the rest of the Bruins’ playoff run.

In contrast, the Islanders don’t have a lot injuries, though they do have one big one. Anders Lee suffered a torn ACL and underwent surgery, so he won’t be playing in this series. Oliver Wahlstrom (undisclosed) is questionable going into Game 1 of the second round.