While drawing a matchup with the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs was the most favorable out of all the other options coming out of the East for the Penguins this season, it’s tough to forget about how consistently miserable the Isles have made Pittsburgh in the past.
But thanks to former Penguin Brooks Orpik netting the overtime winner in Game 6 of the 2013 postseason, suffering season-ending defeats at the hands of the Islanders may officially be a thing of the past. NYI hasn’t really been able to build themselves back up to an annual Stanley Cup contender for years, and I can’t imagine the Penguins are ready to slip back into the failures of decades past and allow that to change. There’s too much pride at stake.
So, let’s delve into the meat and bones of this series and break down every nook and cranny to properly prepare for what Barry Trotz and the new-look Islanders are going to throw at the Penguins come Wednesday night. Just like I did last postseason, I’m going to turn over all the intricate parts of this Islanders team, including a look back at this year’s regular season matchups between them and the Penguins, some brief strategy talk and coaching styles, how the Penguins can exploit them, and, of course, pertinent advanced stats (this time aggregated by the ever-talented Sean Tierney).
The regular season series saw the Penguins and Islanders split two wins in their four matchups, with both having to solidify one of their victories with a shootout.
All the way back on October 30 in the first 2018-19 meeting between the two clubs, the Islanders managed to net six goals in a 6-3 victory in PPG Paints Arena in a game filled with tons of puck luck for the Isles (the summary of their season) and a serious lack of defense by Pittsburgh. It goes to mention that Kris Letang, and of course Justin Schultz, were missing from the lineup with knee and leg injuries, and their absences proved just how lackadaisical this team performs without an elite puck moving defenseman helping dish outlet and breakout passes. This loss wasn’t on Matt Murray despite the ugly stat line of four goals on nine shots and having to be pulled, but he was absolutely hung out to dry on multiple odd-man rushes against. When the Penguins can’t capitalize on their transition game, they seem to sink quickly.
Two days later, the Penguins got another shot at downing the Isles out on Long Island, but the vengeance effort fell short in a 3-2 shootout loss and featured, you guessed it, a short-handed goal against. This game featured a lot of cat-and-mouse line shifting strategies by Mike Sullivan and Trotz (more on that later).
From our recaps:
The Islanders have just enough decent players and a good coach. They’ll be annoying this year, especially as long as they keep getting .935 percent goaltending. If that runs dry, they’re in trouble but what we learned in the past three nights is NYI is going to be better than most projected this summer. I’m not saying book them for the playoffs just yet, but I do think they’ll finish a bit higher in the division than most anticipated.
And finish higher, they did.
December 6 was the penultimate regular season meeting between the two clubs, and boy did Pittsburgh explode offensively this time around. The Penguins torched the Isles to the tune of a 6-2 victory. This was the game Patric Hornqvist left early (presumed concussion symptoms), but it was arguably the best and most complete effort the team gave at that point in the season. The Pens were extremely effective, limiting NYI to just 11 shots through 40 minutes. They also scored five goals of their own on the orher side of the puck.
Game 4 was featured in Nassau Coliseum. Based on the recap, the Penguins were bleeding breakaways against, because of course they were, and were saved by a sensational performance by Casey DeSmith in net. The Pengiuins came out with the win in the shootout. For a little info nugget, Crosby and Malkin are in the ballpark of a 30-40 percent success rate in the shootout, so let’s be happy they’re a forgotten art in the playoffs.
Matchups & Line Combinations
The bottom line of this series is that its outcome will likely be decided by which coaching staff optimizes their line-matching in the most effective manner.
I imagine Trotz will deploy a similar strategy of line combinations and matchups as we detailed on Monday with our NYI top-six primer. Like in the second regular season game between the Penguins and Islanders (as mentioned above), Trotz sent out the Islanders’ stellar top line centered by Mathew Barzal against the then Johnson-Ruhwedel pairing, but Sullivan then countered that move with quick changes to get the Dumoulin-Letang pairing out to immediately stymie potential mismatches. That’s going to happen a lot.
For a more black and white perspective, here are the shift charts from the first and final tilt between the two teams:
and December 10:
As expected, Barzal’s line didn’t often cross paths with the Crosby line, and instead found itself on the ice most often with Malkin, Tanner Pearson, and Derick Brassard. Trotz did that on purpose. Defense isn’t the focal point for the second line. It also goes to point out that the third line of Anthony Beauvillier, Valtteri Filppula, and Leo Komarov (the line that tallied the Isles’ lone regulation goal in the season finale) was matched up against that same Malkin line backed by the defense of the Pettersson-Johnson pairing.
On the flip side, Nick Leddy and Ryan Pulock seem to be the defensemen responsible for containing Crosby and Jake Guentzel as much as possible. That will likely continue.
A lot has changed since this December 10 roster was in place. The Islanders never got to experience the new and improved Penguins after the trade deadline, and that’s a huge advantage for Pittsburgh. Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad are players who are sparkling right now, and their talents and skill sets might be enough to tip the scales in the Pens’ favor. Trotz’s guys are going to come into Wednesday hoping their line-matching decisions are enough to counter the Penguins’ bottom-six and avoid any surprises. Hopefully the McCann/Bjugstad wrinkle knocks them on their rear ends.
Look for the Isles’ top line to get the bulk of their time matched up against the Malkin line (where they’ve had the most success), their second line go up against the Bjugstad line, and their third line become responsible for beating and battering the Crosby line. Fourth lines will offset, and Cullen’s group will have to dig their heels in.
That’s the one advantage for NYI, as Hooks detailed in his bottom-six preview from Monday: the Isles’ fourth line against the Penguins’. Matt Martin, Casey Cizikias, and Cal Clutterbuck are likely going to be an annoying trio throughout the series. Because of their ability to hit and force giveaways, Matt Cullen’s line is going to need to stay on its toes and battle hard. This might be where you see Garrett Wilson get the nod over a more offensive type of winger, especially when Zach Aston-Reese returns to the lineup. It’s best not to count out Teddy Blueger just yet though.
Team Stats & Advanced Data
Thanks to our great partnership with Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), we have a ton of visuals to delve into for the advanced stats community.
A lot of NHL analysts like Sean are surmising that this series is going be a battle of one hard-to-break, defensively solid team (Trotz’s bread and butter) with average offensive firepower against an experienced, electric offensive group filled with elite, superstar scorers that have a bad habit of putting defense on the back burner.
This is a side-by-side comparison of the two teams, showing their even-strength team ratings across the most important stats. Pittsburgh has the edge in creating offense (shots, expected goals, and rate of goals scored), while the Islanders have the edge defensively (shots against, expected goals allowed, rate of goals against).
The Penguins have great shooters, tons of volume, and regularly attack the high danger areas during both even-strength (though the 5-on-5 defense is a little shaky) and the man-advantage, as depicted by Micah Blake McCurdy’s heat map below. Let’s hope that in the mean time the power play starts to take shape and starts finally rewarding the Penguins for their efforts.
The Islanders play a more rigid and structured offense (in both even-strength and 5-on-4) that often tries to find a right-handed defenseman for a shot and subsequent rebound. They also like to cycle around and focus a lot of their effort on working into the slot and net front areas, but it exploits their lack of focus on all the other areas on the ice, also depicted by McCurdy:
The two teams compare similarly in shooting percentage, save percentage, and goals scored above expectation. It’s a tight match between teams of similar strength, boiling down to which will be able to overcome the other — the Penguins’ offense or the Islanders’ defense.
On the season, Pittsburgh and New York have fairly similar (and slightly positive) shares of expected goals. The Islanders cooled off in March before recovering in their last few games of the season. The Penguins stayed scorching hot throughout the final month and a half of the season, and put together a blistering March to stay within the hunt for the Metro crown.
If it weren't for a few last-second blunders, this series would more than likely be opening inside the confines of PPG Paints Arena. But this another area where the two teams seem balanced and evenly matched.
Here we have the expected goal rates for forwards on both benches tightly packed into one visual. This is where you’ll see the most separation between the two. The Islanders have a handful of top players, and then they trickle down to possessing a variety of depth forwards that’ve played a “dull” or slightly “bad” style.
They’re allowing more expected goals against than they generate for themselves while on the ice, and it’s negarively affecting the potential for offensive chances. New York can’t match the Penguins’ top-three of Crosby, Guentzel, and Dominik Simon, and the Penguins don’t have any regular forwards in the dull or bad quadrants. Edge to Pittsburgh.
Summary & Projections
This matchup, on paper, is relatively even, with the Penguins and Islanders excelling on opposite sides of the puck. Barry Trotz is coming off a Stanley Cup winning run that featured his Capitals sinking the Penguins for the first time in the second round. He knows what buttons to push and what works against this Pittsburgh team.
This time around, however, he doesn’t have notorious big guns like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, or Tom Wilson to blast in one-timers or crack skulls. Instead, he has Mat Barzal, some malleable depth pieces, and really hot goaltending (read: PDO luck) that’s recently been crashing back to earth.
The Penguins just need to overpower the Islanders with their talent and experience. The goal to win should first and foremost be to get ahead on the scoreboard immediately. Capitalizing on power play chances regularly and stop letting opportunities coast by, avoiding leaving Murray out to dry, and commanding the neutral zone should then follow suit. If they can do that successfully, the Penguins could easily end this in no more than six games — it’s just the matter of following through.
In terms of who and in how many games, it could hardly be closer. pic.twitter.com/0HqUgrzHIS— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) April 8, 2019