One of the best ways to approach a playoff series is to take a step back and look at it from a different perspective. Luckily in the SB Nation network, we have a great resource over at Lighthouse Hockey in our buddy Dom, one of the premiere voices in the Islanders’ community.
We were lucky to get Dom’s input, and later on in the day, if you head over to their site you can see what they were interested in learning about the Penguins from us:
Question #1: One of the most dramatic sagas in sports ended last summer with the John Tavares free agency. Most impressions were that this would be a rebuilding year, yet the Islanders end up with a wonderful season and 103 points. How unexpected do you think this season’s results were, and why were the Isles able to (seemingly) leave the Tavares-era behind so seamlessly and move on to such a great season?
Sorry, John who?
This year’s performance was very unexpected, not just for the captain leaving but also because of who they added: Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Martin, Luca Sbisa...not exactly a promising quarter of your roster there. Throw in Thomas Greiss’ horrible 2018-19 and the uncertainty with Robin Lehner and it makes complete sense that so few people thought they’d even be in the playoff bubble.
That said, Barry Trotz was always going to be a steadying force. While everything I just mentioned has worked out in best-case scenarios, there was certainly reason to think Trotz could extract the best out of some of those guys (and use Sbisa as little as possible), while his goaltending braintrust could do wonders with Greiss and Lehner, who both had established talent.
But anyway, it’s still a rebuilding year. Several key players are UFAs (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, Robin Lehner), and other crucial players have only emerged over the past two seasons (Barzal, Pulock, Toews). They are playing with house money right now and could still look vastly different next year.
Question #2: The performance and results dipped a bit in the month of March, what’s the level of concern right now about if that is going to be a continuing trend?
I think it’s a concern in that it underlines their slim margin for error. If the goaltending isn’t consistent, if all lines aren’t going, if they have one or two key injuries, things can slide in a hurry. Getting Filppula back was big, because they had trouble replacing him — again, something that we’d not have imagined writing back in September — and that has a trickle down effect. But they finished the season trending the right way, so I expect they will deliver a tough series.
#3: What’s the deal with Mat Barzal only scoring one goal in the last 24 games? Snakebit or a sign of a problem there?
He’s always going to be looked to more for his setups than his goals, but yes, there’s been some snakebites. Overall, he’s playing a good 200-foot game as Trotz has asked — and Barzal welcomed, even at the cost of points — so I’m not concerned. It certainly doesn’t help his numbers that the Islanders power play is terrible.
#4: With the first round games being played in the Coliseum, can you talk about what that means to the fanbase to have the games there?
In terms of a game setting, it’s absolutely where most fans want to be. The move to Brooklyn was more convenient to city fans who have difficulty making the multi-transit journey out to Uniondale, but otherwise it’s been nothing but trouble — from the awkward seating arrangement, the stepchild treatment from the arena managers, and the atmosphere. Of course no matter where you live or work, you’re going to much prefer the Coliseum experience. Add in playoffs and tailgating, and it’s ideal.
After 2016, we all thought that was it. It’s a delicious bonus to get to see more playoff hockey there, including home ice against a traditional rival. If the Isles advance beyond the first round, it’s going to be a jolt to return to Barclays.
#5: Finish this thought: the Isles can win this series, if...
... They play as they have all season, with a continuous, oppressive four-line roll, steady goaltending and stingy defense. Add some uncharacteristic power play luck too.
#6: And, on the flip side: the Pens can win this series, if...
... Any of the above Islanders’ traits go cold, or if the Penguins rack up power play goals while the Isles come up empty there.
Thanks to Dom for his answers and input.
One thing I definitely agree with is what is mentioned towards the end about the Isles’ power play. It ended up being 29th in the league for the full season. And if you narrow down from the All-Star break until the end of the season, it was dead-last hitting at just a 10.8 percent (nine for 83).
Of course, the Pens’ penalty kill from ASB until now is just 29th in the league at 70.3 percent, so this could be a clash of weaknesses here. Whichever group does better in this facet might just tip the balance of some of the games in the series.