It will be music to the ears of Pittsburgh Penguins fans seeing their team draw the New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, given their record against the Isles this season. However, a victory is by no means guaranteed against a well-disciplined Islanders team with a Vezina trophy candidate in goal.
The Penguins finished the year in first place in their division with an impressive overall record of 37-16-3 for a total of 77 points, booking them a date with the Islanders who finished fourth in the division with an overall record of 32-17-7, six points back of the Pens with 71 points. The good news for the Penguins is that they have faired very well against the Isles this year with a 6-2-0 record in eight meetings between the two sides. The Pens finished the year on a high note and will look to build off the momentum gained to drive them past the Isles, who finished the year in poor form, with just three wins in their final 10 games.
However, despite asserting dominance throughout this season, the last time these two teams met in the playoffs it was the Islanders who dominated the Penguins with a four-game sweep, something that will likely still be on the minds of a few Pens players headed into this series. There will be several key factors that will come into play throughout this series for the Penguins that could potentially make or break their success in the playoffs.
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The goalies in this series were two of the best in the division this year, and this head-to-head matchup could come down to which goalie outplays the other. Both netminders, however, finished the season slightly banged up but are likely to start Game One of the playoffs.
For the Pens, Tristan Jarry has been stellar in goal after a rough start to the season but finished the year day-to-day with an upper-body injury. The injury does not appear to be serious, but should still be something to keep an eye on. The 26-year-old appeared in 39 games for the Pens this year, finishing the season with a 25-9-3 record, a 2.75 goals-against average, a .909 save percentage, and two shutouts. Jarry was a busy goaltender this year, facing the fifth-highest shots this year at 1,100. Inexperience is the biggest concern surrounding the Canadian-netminder who has only appeared in one career playoff game, a loss which came in last year’s postseason where he allowed one goal. Throughout his minor league career, Jarry appeared in six playoff games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, registering just one victory. The Surrey, BC-native will look to build off his impressive season in goal for the Pens and start his playoff resume.
Across the rink, the Islanders are entering the series with Semyon Varlamov who has been in the Vezina Trophy conversation this year, after a dominant season. The Isles goaltender left their last game with what Coach Barry Trotz said was a strain and seemed to be more of a precautionary move, but again will definitely be a concern for the team headed into a tough series. The 33-year-old veteran appeared in 36 games this season, finishing with a 19-11-4 record, a 2.04 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage, and an NHL-best seven shutouts. The former first-round pick (23rd overall) of the Washington Capitals has appeared in 46 career playoff games, backstopping the Isles to the conference finals a year ago. He holds a 24-20 playoff record with a 2.38 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage, adding four playoff shutouts. The Samara, Russia-native has been a very reliable goaltender for the Isles this season and could steal a game or two, being an X-factor and potential game-breaker in this upcoming series. If he continues his great form into the playoffs, the Penguins will have their hands full trying to solve the veteran netminder.
Keeping Offensive Momentum
The Pens have been on a hot streak, finishing their final 10 games of the season with an 8-2-0 record. They have continuously built up more and more momentum throughout the season, handling adversity through injuries and a challenging start to their season. Sidney Crosby has had another great season, but the teams secondary scoring is what has propelled them to the top of their division as they have seen players such as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen all score over 30 points in a year where Evgeni Malkin struggled with injury and poor form, yet still tallying 28 points in 33 games. Rust alone has had five goals and three assists against the Islanders this season, while his linemate Crosby has recorded three goals and six assists.
Additionally, the Pens deadline day pickup of Jeff Carter has been a great addition to the roster as the Veteran forward has not only provided leadership but has also tallied 11 points in 14 games with the club. He is also Centering a line with McCann and Gaudreau on his wings, which have looked the most threatening in the teams’ recent games. The Pens have been looking increasingly more dangerous as the season has progressed and they will need to build on that momentum heading into round one. The highest-scoring team in the NHL, their offensive depth has made them a dangerous opponent throughout the year and it is incumbent that their depth does not disappear throughout the playoffs, where they will be heavily depended on for a deep postseason run.
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Contain Mathew Barzal
A huge factor for the Pens in this upcoming series will be to contain superstar Mathew Barzal, which is no easy task. The star forward finished the season with 17 goals and 28 assists through 55 games. He finished the year on a hot streak, which will bode well for the team headed into the series. However, the Isles have also seen forwards Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle succeed against the Pens this season, with the latter netting four goals in eight games against the team this season. Barzal will undoubtedly receive the most attention, as the former first-round pick (16th overall) has appeared in 30 career playoff games over the past two seasons, scoring 24 points in that time. The 23-year-olds speed, quick hands, and dangerous shot will be cause for concern for the Pens, whom he’s scored six points against in their eight meetings this year. Although the Isles have by no means been an offensive threat this year, the former Calder Trophy winner will be the key to their offense during this playoff series and the Penguins will need to tighten up defensively and be wary of when Barzal is on the ice.
The Penguins’ strong side this year has been their offense, and the team’s ability to score goals and generate chances up and down their lineup, while the Islanders have found their success in their ability to defend well, on top of their incredible goaltending. The defensively disciplined Isles, who carry a lot of experience will surely try to play a tough defensive system to crack, frustrating the Pens top scorers who may need to get creative and take chances to beat their tough opponents, who will focus on defense, special teams, and a quick and lethal counter-attack to take down the division winners. Despite the lopsided regular season record, this should be a very entertaining and tight playoff series.