For Pittsburgh it is Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang.
For New York it is Mathew Barzal, Semyon Varlamov, and players like Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson.
They will not be the only players that could determine the outcome of this series. So we want to take a look at some of the X-Factors for both teams that could play a significant role in the result.
Jeff Carter and Jared McCann
We have talked about it a lot, but the common denominator in every Penguins Stanley Cup team during the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era has been a dominant third line. The Carter McCann duo certainly gives them the potential for that. In 166 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together that duo has attempted more than 56 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 15-4 margin. You get that sort of play from your third line, you are going to have a heck of a hockey team.
Zucker did not have a great season, and at times he seemed to be completely snakebit offensively. He would have chances, only to have the puck bounce over his stick. Or to have a goalie make a great save. Or to just flat out miss the net. He always seemed close and just unable to finish. I still think there is more there and that with a little change in his puck luck his offense could rebound in a significant way. That would do wonders for the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen.
The Penguins Fourth Line
With a full complement of players to start the playoffs the Penguins should be able to put themselves in a position to roll the four lines they want. That means the Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese line becomes the fourth line instead of the third line, and that is exactly the role it belongs in. They can play a shutdown defensive game in those minutes and given the way they have played all season can actually chip in some offense. When everybody is in the lineup this forward group is as deep as any the Penguins have had during the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era and that includes the Stanley Cup winning teams.
A lot of the Islanders’ offense goes through Barzal, but Wahlmstrom is going to be somebody to watch as well. The Islanders’ first-round pick in 2018, the 20-year-old Wahlstrom has shown flashes of top-line potential this season and has a very dangerous shot. He scored 12 goals in 44 games and definitely has the potential to change a game when he gets a clean look.
A sleeper player here because we do not know what Varlamov’s availibility is going to be in this series. He has been banged up, and if he can not go at some point that is going to put the Islanders’ net in the hands of their prized rookie. He is the future of the position in New York and has been very good this season. It is not a given that he will play in this series, but if he does a lot of the result will ride on his performance.
The Islanders always needed another addition to their forward lineup, but when team captain Anders Lee was injured it made that need even more significant. They acquired Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils to help fill that opening. So far Palmieri has been a little bit of a disappointment, scoring just two goals and two assists in his first 17 games with the team. That is probably not what the Islanders had in mind, especially given Palmieri’s success over the years in New Jersey when he was a consistent 25-30 goal scorer that also played a strong two-way game. Not only has he struggled to score goals, he has also struggled to even generate shots on goals, averaging just 1.82 shots on goal per game since joining the Islanders.