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The three keys for the Penguins/Islanders series

Basically the only thing you need to know about the most important Pittsburgh/NYI matchup

NHL: MAR 29 Islanders at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last night the Islanders lost to Boston to settle the seeding in the East division. Due to their loss, NYI ends up in the fourth seed, giving them a date with the East division champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Styles make fights,” as the popular expression in boxing goes. The same is true in many respects for a seven game NHL series. The matchup has many angles and details of how the two teams matchup against one another, each trying to emphasize their strengths and avoid their relative weaknesses.

This week there will be a lot of previews and pixels spent on comparing, contrasting, overlaying the two opponents, but this Pens/Isles matchup is pretty much going to boil down to these three, key points.

#1: Pittsburgh’s home ice advantage

The spoil of winning first place for the Penguins means playing at home to start the series and for up to four of the possible seven games in Round 1 (and Round 2 if they get there, but first things first).

Home ice could mean a lot — the Pens have a league-best 22-4-2 record playing in Pittsburgh. The Islanders have only won 11 of 28 road games this season (11-13-4), and just six of their last 15 road games dating back to March 11th. March 11th is a very important date in the story of the Isles’ season, it’s when captain Anders Lee was lost for the year with a torn ACL. That moment altered the whole course and trajectory of the NYI season, as we will see in coming previews.

However, even being one of the worst road teams in the league, NYI won almost 40% of their road games. That’s not zero. The Pens have won 78% of their home games. That’s not 100%. In it’s most simple form, it’s easy to understand that Pittsburgh only needs to win all their home games and they will skate off to the second round. Doing so, however, is easier said than done. It’s an advantage, but not a guarantee.

The flip side of the coin is that NYI is a great home team themselves, with a 21-4-3 mark that nearly rivals the Pens’ home record. Pittsburgh has been OK on the road, going 15-12-2 on the season. However, the Pens are 11-5 as an away team in the last 16 games, they’ve been much better recently on the road.

#2: Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn’s voodoo goalie magic

Regardless of the goalie, regardless of the defense, regardless of the freakin’ team they’re working for, you can count on one thing from Barry Trotz and his goalie guru Mitch Korn: they’re going to get fantastic results from their goalie.

Just take a look at the last 13 years, stretching three different teams, plenty of different goalies and innumerable skaters in front of them. None of that matters, the Trotz system works and the Korn schooling of goalies rarely drops off:

Trotz/Korn 5v5 goaltending results over the years

Season Team 5v5 save% NHL rank
Season Team 5v5 save% NHL rank
2020-21 NYI 0.931 3rd
2019-20 NYI 0.923 10th
2018-19 NYI 0.936 1st
2017-18 WSH 0.925 12th
2016-17 WSH 0.937 1st
2015-16 WSH 0.929 11th
2014-15 WSH 0.924 13th
2013-14 NSH 0.910 28th
2012-13 NSH 0.920 17th
2011-12 NSH 0.926 12th
2010-11 NSH 0.935 2nd
2009-10 NSH 0.924 12th
2008-09 NSH 0.924 7th

(Team data via Natural Stat Trick)

That’s an average of .926% 5v5 goaltending over the last 13 seasons, that has been peaking as of late with top-3 league-wide performances in three of the last five seasons.

This year the beneficiaries of brushing up against the Trotz/Korn goalie magic were Semyon Varlamov (.937% 5v5 save%, and an overall .929 save% that ranked 2nd in the NHL) and rookie Ilya Sorokin (.920% 5v5 sv%, .918% overall).

The Islanders haven’t really had a designated starting goalie. Going back to the crucial 3/11 date, Varlamov has started 16 of the last 30 NYI games, with Sorokin right there with him at 14 starts. They don’t need a clear “#1” goalie or risk over-working one in a condensed season when playing on this team.

Varlamov has had the better stats for the season, and his experience is there too. Now 33, Varlamov is in his 13th NHL season (feels like forever since the Pens beat him as the Capitals’ starting goalie in 2009, doesn’t it?). Varlamov has 44 career NHL playoff starts with a 24-20 record and .917 save%.

Goaltending is always the key in an NHL playoff series, it’s not too often the second best goalie wins a series. And with the Trotz/Korn machine chugging along at full tilt, their goaltenders are always in a position to give great performances, and seemingly always come through.

This need not be reminded to Pens’ fans, who still keenly remember Robin Lehner surrendering just six goals in four games (.956 save%) in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. Lehner is gone, but the challenge of beating the Islander system and goalie remains.

#3: Can the Islanders bounce back? Can the Penguins keep going?

Going back to the Lee injury again, the Islanders only have 78 goals in their last 29 games (for 2.68 goals/game). Even strength goal scoring has been a huge issue, with just 22 goals in the last 14 games for NYI. The Islanders aren’t Buffalo or New Jersey as just a plain, bad team, but their offensive touch is pretty weak for a playoff team and their form as of late has not been very offensively impressive.

The trade additions of Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri were celebrated as “perfect fit” types of deals, but haven’t panned out on the ice. The two have combined for just three total goals and six total points in 30 combined man games.

The Penguins are the polar opposite. Since 3/11, Pittsburgh leads the league with 115 goals (in 29 games) for 3.7 goals/game. Their offense is clicking like never before, with Jeff Carter (9G as a Penguin) well out-scoring Zajac and Palmieri combined. The Pens have been getting healthier with Evgeni Malkin back, and Brandon Tanev expected to play soon.

The good thing about the playoffs is that there is a clean slate. What happened in the regular season doesn’t matter any longer. However, it’s tough to overlook the stark differences in the paths and trajectories these two teams have been on for the past several weeks. Pittsburgh’s arrow has been pointing up. NYI’s has been in the middle, at best. Will the Islanders be able to reset and start anew for the post-season? Will Pittsburgh be able to pick up where they left off? The answer to those two questions likely decides which club goes home, and which one moves on for the second round of the playoffs.