I was dreading the 1-8 seed match up for two reasons:
1) The Islanders were coming off a strong 8-1-4 record in April that carried them into their first postseason in six years. The Old Barn was thirsty, and the young team was ready to give them something to cheer for. As the clear underdogs, they could walk into the series void of pressure and expectations. They just had to stay the course.
2) The Penguins were 8-4 in April, but they were far from playing the dominant hockey displayed in their 15-game winning streak. By the end of the season, in fact, the Pens had back-to-back losses against the Sabres and Devils which invoked some discomfort as the Pens headed into the playoffs. Being number one in the conference felt deceptive because they weren't looking like the best in the East.
Nevertheless, the Pens entered the postseason as heavy favorites. Many called the Pens to sweep, some gave the Islanders one win on home ice, and very few gave the Islanders more wins than that. The Pens had too much talent (especially with Sidney Crosby almost ready to return to action) and experience to be thwarted by a rookie team. However, the Pens carried a different anvil on their shoulders: getting Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow their first Stanley Cups. This is on top of wiping away three consecutive years of frustrating playoff exits. But again, no one was expecting the first round to be a difficult obstacle for the seasoned Penguins.
The first four periods of hockey went swimmingly for the Pens. They overwhelmed the Islanders offensively and suffocated their speedy forwards defensively. Marc-Andre Fleury was outperforming Evgeni Nabokov. Everything was playing out as expected, but then the roles reversed. The Islanders found a spark from within and built on it. Their hard work stunned the Pens as they took two of four games and severely outplayed the Pens in Game 3. So began the panic as images of yet another upset became a possibility. Even though the series was tied, the Pens were playing like a team preparing to lose and no one felt good going into Game 5. Fans seemed to put forth more effort screaming at their TVs than the Pens did on any given shift.
The series tipped in the Pens' favor when Dan Bylsma benched Tanner Glass and Jussi Jokinen in favor of Joe Vitale and Tyler Kennedy. Fleury, after allowing one-too-many squeakers, would also trade his mask for a backwards Pens cap. Veteran skaters swapped for speedy/gritty wingers and the franchise goalie swapped for the calm Tomas Vokoun. It felt crazy, but crazy suddenly became very necessary. Anything to right the ship...and it worked. The energy boost provided by Vitale and Kennedy rejuvenated the Pens and Vokoun was the definition of veteran between the pipes. Suddenly, the Pens had life and it was all they needed to close the series.
What Went Right
No series win can happen without a few things going right. I think many would argue that at the top of the list are the special teams. The power play, to the surprise of none, is best in the NHL at 33.3% and the penalty kill, after an atrocious season, is third at 90%.
The Pens also responded well to the adversity thrown their way. In Game 4, they responded to Islanders goals with goals of their own just minutes (if that) apart. In Game 6, the Pens kept fighting to keep the game tied, never claiming the lead until Brooks Orpik closed the door in overtime.
And there are also the unsung heroes like Kennedy and Vitale who stepped up when the Pens needed a boost.
All reasonable answers, but I think getting the lucky bounces may have been the deciding factor.
When I look back at the six games, it doesn't feel like the Islanders only won two games. This has everything to do with the Islanders outplaying the Pens for all but two games. In hockey, we like to think the hardest-working team brings home the goods, but that's not always the case. Just look at the Pens' recent playoff history: Against the Canadiens and the Lightning, the Pens were generating tons of chances but were ultimately stymied against good teams riding hot goalies. The Pens may have been playing like the better team, but they couldn't finish their chances and it cost them. And it was frustrating beyond belief.
In both of those series, Pens fans left the playoffs with "what ifs" swarming the mind. "What if Fleury's lateral movement was a half a second faster?" "What if Evgeni Malkin saw Chris Kunitz wide open in the slot?" Now, we're thinking, "Thank God Orpik got a piece of that centering pass" and "Thank God Kennedy was cherry picking at the blue line" while the Islanders are stuck with a sour taste in their mouth. No team can win the Cup without having inexplicable bounces go their way and it's nice to finally be on the other end for once.
What Went Wrong
Attitude, attitude, attitude.
The Pens came into the series with a swagger they backed up only in the first game, and now, they walk out of the series with a large slice of humble pie. This team carries with them a great deal of talent, veteran wisdom, and youthful energy. Much of that was taken for granted and the Pens were lucky to come out of the series alive. This cannot happen anymore in this playoffs not because of what the Senators will bring to the series, but because the Pens cannot make a habit of relying only on Shero's successful signing and trading abilities. His work is done; now the Pens need to make something of the blueprint provided for by their GM.
Against the Islanders, there clearly was a winning formula in the team dressed for Games 5 and 6 as opposed to the first four games. Finding the right combination against the Senators will be just as important. We've seen just how big an impact can be made by swapping out a few fourth liners. The change in chemistry was unbelievable.
Another issue that was luckily addressed was indeed team chemistry. The Pens were taking a lot of heat for playing like they didn't care, for terrible zone entries, for an inability to sustain a forecheck. Meanwhile, we forget that Game 2 was the first game the Pens had a full, healthy roster. Despite the positives of having so much talent sitting in the press box, establishing that chemistry can be difficult and it takes time. The Pens had to figure this out after the playoffs started and hopefully that's the last we see of this problem.
The day after the Game 4 loss, Iginla told the media, "This could be great for us." That really struck a chord with me. It was such an unexpected thing to say especially all things considered, but we can now look back at that line and see exactly what it meant.
This was great for the Pens who are now moving forward to face the Ottawa Senators in a few days. They understand they need more urgency each game and that they need to put in more effort than simply showing up as a talent team. The Pens benefited more coming out of a tough series with a few painful lessons learned as opposed to a clean sweep with no new insight to bring to the next round. Though as they're about to face a physically intimidating Senators team, having a few more days off would've been nice.
With the story lines that follow these two clubs into the second round, I'm preparing myself for a circus but hoping Sidney Crosby puts on the show he did last time these two faced each other. And that Matt Cooke can leave this round in one piece. I'm certain this series won't disappoint.
Hopefully neither do the Pens.