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The ultimate Penguins/Islanders preview: The tale of the tape and prediction

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The ultimate series preview for the Penguins and Islanders

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

One more day until the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders kick off their playoff series. So let’s go out with a bang with the most comprehensive preview you could hope to find.

Shoutout Japers Rink for the model we’ll follow. And as they put it perfectly as a disclaimer:

these categories are not meant to be taken as being evenly weighted, and the degree to which one team has the edge isn’t going to be noted on the chart (though we’ll talk about it)

5v5 offense

The Penguins finished with 126 5v5 goals this year, good for 5th in the league. The Islanders weren’t far behind with 113 goals that put them in 10th place in the league. However, the Anders Lee injury on 3/11 is such a crucial point that split the season for New York. After that date, the Pens scored 72 5v5 goals in 31 games (3rd in the league) and NYI had 59 goals there (in 29 games, 16th in the NHL). Pittsburgh has the edge here.

The Pens also held a commanding 19-11 even strength goal lead over the Islanders in the course of their 2020-21 season series.

5v5 defense

As you would expect, the Islanders put the clamps down on giving up goals at 5v5 this year. They only gave up 90 goals at the normal strength (good for 4th in the league), while the Penguins lagged behind a bit giving up 100 goals (12th).

Post-Lee injury and for latest form, it’s worth noting that NYI has given up 51 goals (in 29 games) since 3/11, compared to the Pens’ 52 5v5 goals against in 31 games. So for total form, they might be about equal. But season results are season results.

Power play

The Pittsburgh power play enjoyed a red hot streak late in the year, and ended up at 23.7% (4th in the NHL). The New York power play has struggled, converting at just at 18.8% rate (21st).

But this is where nightmares of 2019 might come back, where the Pens went only 1-11 with the advantage against NYI. This should be an area of strength for Pittsburgh. It needs to be.

Penalty kill

This is where it gets interesting. Pittsburgh power play = good. NYI penalty kill = good (83.7%, 6th place). Strength on strength who wins?

Conversely, while the NYI power play is poor (18.8%, 21st), so too is the Pens’ PK (77.4%, 27th).

So which matchup wins? When NYI is on the PK, they have more reason to feel strong. If this extends to totally cancel out the special teams, that’s a bad sign for Pittsburgh. The Penguins need to win a “good on good” matchup when they are up a player.

Goaltending

Perhaps the most interesting area. Semyon Varlamov had the second best save% in the league this year. But he also got hurt in the last regular season game (though the Isles are saying his Game 1 status is fine). Varlamov also only has a .897 save% vs. the Pens in six games this season, and just a .899 save% in 15 career games against Pittsburgh. Varlamov should have the talent edge, yet that has never has translated on the ice against the Pens.

In the other corner, Tristan Jarry had a down and up season in his first year as a starter. He has one NHL playoff start under his belt, compared to 44 for Varlamov. Jarry also got hurt in his last regular season game, though he’s also proclaiming himself to be 100%.

Varlamov has 24 NHL playoff wins. Jarry has 0. This is an area the Penguins could win — especially if Varly gets lit up like he usually does against Pittsburgh. Yet entering the series, they’re not getting credit for it until it gets proven.

...Which, really isn’t the end of the world. Henrik Lundqvist would have been favored in a series preview over Matt Murray in the first round of 2016, and that ended up a no contest in the opposite direction. Pittsburgh’s best case scenario would be to mirror 2016 (in more ways than one).

Top 6 forwards

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Kasperi Kapanen

vs.

Leo Komarov - Mat Barzal - Jordan Eberle
Anthony Beauvillier - Brock Nelson - Josh Bailey

This will be a fun matchup. And perhaps a decisive one. Barzal and Eberle have been Penguin killers in the past. Malkin isn’t coming into the 2021 playoffs in the greatest form, and Zucker hasn’t had the best season either.

But you can’t dismiss the Pens here. Guentzel, Crosby and Rust all have 22+ goals. NYI doesn’t have a 20 goal scorer.

Also a real key could be the speed on the wings for Pittsburgh. There’s a lot of burners there. And don’t forget about two Hall of Fame centers, both playing for the Pens. Yep.

Bottom six forwards

Jared McCann - Jeff Carter - Frederick Gaudreau
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev

vs.

Kyle Palmieri - Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Oliver Wahlstrom
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck

This might be the two best fourth lines in hockey, and likely to get deployed against higher lines on the opposition. That will be fun to watch.

The difference here is that trade deadline acquisition Jeff Carter has nine goals with his new team. The trade deadline acquisition on the other side, Kyle Palmieri, has one goal.

Pittsburgh’s depth of centers 1-4 is as good as it’s been since their Cup years with Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen joining 87 and 71. Carter and Blueger are worthy to carry that banner.

Defensemen

This is an interesting split. To me, both teams have excellent first pairs. But the analytics and advanced metrics from this season say that Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock have blown away Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang.

But then, Pittsburgh has the edge on #3-6 defensemen by the advanced stats. There’s not much special about the Islanders’ defense as individuals after the top pair.

New York has a weird way with their tight system and forwards coming back to help that the sum of their defense is a lot more than looking at the individual parts that make them up. At this point, I think it’s pretty even. The Pens have more talent, but the Isles have a ton of parts in the machine that are very familiar with their roles and what they’re being asked to do.

This choice is a bit of a cop out, I’d admit. But also both very reasonable cases about why they have the advantage. For Pittsburgh, it’s the skill of each player they have. For New York, it’s how they work together and play in tune to create a stingy defense.

Coaching

If you dig deep and look into the game-within-the-game, Barry Trotz vs. Mike Sullivan has been one of the most fascinating coaching games going in the last five years.

We’ve seen a lot of cat and mouse games here:

  • 2016: Barry Trotz was with the first place, President Trophy winning Washington Capitals when he saw the Pens in the second round of the playoffs. But the Caps had one weakness: their third pair defense. By design, luck or divine intervention, it turned out Sullivan bested Trotz mainly by using the famed HBK line to isolate on the Caps’ rotating third pair of players like Mike Weber, Taylor Chorney and a then-young Nate Schmidt ended up allowing the Pens’ to feast. The difference in the series was the important goals that came from “third liners” Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel getting the better of the Caps’ weak points.
  • 2017: A lot of this series was about Marc-Andre Fleury standing on his head and holding the Penguins in, which has nothing to do with either coach. Even then, though, Sullivan coached up his speed and depth to find and exploit weak links like Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner to lean into his club’s stronger areas and forward depth.
  • 2018: Trotz finally got a playoff win over Sullivan, as the Penguins couldn’t rise to the occasion for a third straight Stanley Cup and a hungry Washington team found a way to finally knock off the champs.
  • 2019: Now with NYI, Trotz got a shock sweep over the favored Penguins. Despite having a very even 5v5 49.97% xGF%, the Islanders hit up Matt Murray and the Pens’ defense for a 10-4 goal edge at 5v5 and didn’t let up on the Pens as they swept them away, almost before they knew what happened.

This will be a “rubber match” of sorts for Trotz and Sullivan, though it seems likely this won’t be the conclusive chapter. Both coaches are well respected, both have the same record in playoff series against one another. I don’t think there’s an edge either way, we just have two really good coaches behind the bench here. Tons of respect on both sides, and for good reason....But if Sullivan can get Malkin or Carter out against Andy Greene an edge might be there to be found.

Overall this breakdown has gone 4-3-2, in favor of the Penguins. That probably shows how even this series actually is. Pittsburgh is the #1 seed, but all four playoff teams out of the East are talented enough to win a round or two.

This won’t be easy for the Pens. They need to wipe away ghosts of 2019 while also breaking in a new playoff goalie. Pittsburgh probably has more talent on paper, but NHL games aren’t played on paper. The Islanders are just fine with being underdogs. Once the puck drops that doesn’t matter anyways.

For Pittsburgh, 2021 is their last best chance to make a run for the Stanley Cup. Sidney Crosby is in top form. Evgeni Malkin will try to will himself to be there too. Add in a great bunch of forwards and centers, and the Pens should find a way to get through the first round. Yet, there is no doubt they will have to earn every minute and every goal and every win against this New York team.

NYI is a bad road team. There are more games being played in Pittsburgh. Pens in 6. Don’t be surprised if it’s 5 though, unless Varlamov has something to say about that.