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Penguins/Islanders series preview: It’s not 2019 any longer

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There’s a lot of reasons why and how the Penguins have moved past being swept by the Islanders in 2019

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins and the Islanders have some history in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As fate would have it, they tend to meet in playoffs during odd years on the calendar — with 2021 being the next to join the chapter of this book. The book has generally not been a very positive read for Pittsburgh. In 1975 the Pens became the first team in semi-modern NHL history to blow a 3 games to 0 series lead against NYI. In 1993...well, no more needs to be said, as the Islanders pulled one of the biggest upsets in NHL history to derail a budding dynasty in overtime of Game 7.

Pittsburgh got the better of the Islanders in 2013 with a classic Brooks Orpik OT goal in Game 6 to win the series. Then in 2019 the teams met again, with almost everyone picking the Pens to win. Yet they would not win a single game, getting swept by a feisty NYI team.

That sent the Pens into a period of soul searching with Stanley Cup winners like Phil Kessel, Olli Maatta and Matt Cullen playing their final games in Pittsburgh for various reasons in the fallout of that disappointing year.

The memory of 2019 hangs over a lot of fans, and not for poor reasons, especially coupled with the Pens bombing out of the 2020 bubble postseason. Overall, Pittsburgh has just one postseason victory since 2018.

However, it’s time to turn the page from the past, and the Penguins are certainly eager to do so.

“Every season is a new season,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday. “And this is a new team.”

He’s not kidding. In many ways the spring of 2019 feels like so long ago right now with as much as life has changed. And the Penguins are much different from the last playoff series.

The obvious is the addition of Jeff Carter. Then you get to Kasperi Kapanen. And Brandon Tanev wasn’t around the last time these teams met in playoffs. Same with Jason Zucker. Not to mention Teddy Blueger and Jared McCann (who each only played one game in 2019 playoffs) have come a very long way in the last 25 months.

Then you get to the defense. Only three Pens’ blueliners from 2019 remain, and they’re three of the strongest (Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson). Add in John Marino and the rejuvenations of Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson and it’s a completely revamped and different defense to replace the unholy grouping of Maatta/Jack Johnson/Justin Schultz/Erik Gudbranson that were around the last playoff series.

In net is different too with Tristan Jarry, with a 18-3-2 record with a .917 save% since March 1st. Jarry is unproven in the NHL postseason, but if he performs like he did in the second half of the season, that question mark will quickly morph into an exclamation point.

Taking all of this in, it’s easy to see how looking back on the 2019 personnel might as well be almost as distant to where it might as well be 2013 or 1993. But the challenge of Barry Trotz and the Islanders is the same.

“Any time you play a team like the Islanders that are structured so well and play so well defensively, it’s always going to be the type of game where you have to have such patience,” Bryan Rust said. “You’ve got to do those little things, and you’ve got to pay attention to details because any little thing that could go wrong or any mistake you make could end up in the back of your net.”

That wasn’t much of a problem for the Pens in the regular season. They outscored the Islanders 25-19, winning six of eight games. That adds up to averaging 3.13 goals/game. The Long Islanders didn’t allow any more goals to any single divisional opponent this season.

But even the 2020-21 regular season is now in the rear view mirror and of little meaning now.

“It’s going to be a tough series,” Kapanen predicted.

Given Pittsburgh/NYI playoff history, one could expect no less as the Penguins look to write a friendlier chapter to the history of this matchup.