Time to shine….Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Middletown, N. J. – We have all seen the movie played out before our eyes : Heavily favored team heading into a professional sports tournament that decides the champion of the league falls flat on their face and fails to live up to the heavy weight of expectations.
Then again we have also seen the sequel where the aforementioned team performs as expected and sometimes even better to claim said championship and prove the ‘experts’ correct.
In perusing the series previews, the EOI staff got together and prepared a ‘Series Primer’; there were certain keywords used to describe each club, some more favorable than others.
For the Penguins, the most common descriptors were : ‘stacked’, ‘loaded’, ‘battle-tested’ and ‘ready’.
For the Islanders, a somewhat different tone : ‘inexperienced’, ‘young’, ‘underdog’, ‘miracle’ and ‘cute?‘ (Ok, I am reaching with that last one, not going into details where it came from if you have not heard by now).
Relying on past history is never a safe option in this type of situation, so basically, for all intents and purposes, throw David Volek and Darius Kasparaitis out the window. These are new, improved, unique clubs with upgraded stars, and just about anything you would expect to happen probably won’t.
Sidney Crosby coming back from losing 867 teeth is not the story. The Penguins are much deeper than just their superstar captain, while the Islanders’ inexperience and lack of battle tested players has become social media fodder. Take a look at Pittsburgh Tribune reporter Ken Laird’s tweet from earlier today:
But the implication that the Isles’s inexperience is no matchup against Pittsburgh’s ‘juggernaut’ is something I would strongly argue against, for the heavy burden often placed on teams expected to win usually results in unnecessary pressure that leads to more mistakes than victories.
The story, at the end of the series, will come down to the most ancient and tested philosophy of them all. Who wants it more? New York has shown a tremendous ability over the last seven weeks to outskate, outhustle and outwork just about anyone and if the defense and goaltending holds up, we could see an upset as quickly as you can say apple pie.
Game 1 (Pittsburgh): Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network, TSN
Game 2 (Pittsburgh): Friday at 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network, TSN
Game 3 (New York): Sunday, May 5 at 12 p.m., NBC, TSN
Game 4 (New York): Tuesday, May 7 at 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network, TSN
Game 5* (Pittsburgh): Thursday, May 9 at 7 p.m., TSN
Game 6* (New York): Saturday, May 11 at TBD, TSN
Game 7* (Pittsburgh): Sunday, May 12 at TBD, TSN
Jan 29 – Islanders 4 Penguins 1
Feb 5 – Penguins 4 Islanders 2
Mar 10 – Penguins 6 Islanders 1
Mar 22 – Penguins 4 Islanders 2
Mar 30 – Penguins 2 Islanders 0
Forwards (Andy Graziano)
With the Islanders, the conversation always starts with MVP candidate John Tavares, who finished 3rd in the NHL in goals this season and 17th in points. This is probably not JT’s year to win the award, but many opportunities will assuredly present themselves in the future. The truth of the matter is that without the rejuvenation of the 2nd line, the Islanders would not even be playing this series. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey are as integral to this offense as the main trio complemented by Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes are. Follow that with aggressive and passionate 3rd and 4th units and the Isles are as deep offensively than they have been in years. Michael Grabner‘s speed and Matt Martin‘s physical prowess could turn out to be series changers for the Isles. Grabner possesses the breakaway ability to turn a game on its head in a moment’s notice and Martin has to throw the easily provoked Penguins off their game much like the Philadelphia Flyers did in last seasons opening round.
What is there not to say about the Penguins stable of thoroughbreds? Sidney Crosby is getting a medical examination today to determine if he can return for game one but even without him, its a who’s who of playoff tested superstars. Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Brenden Morrow all possess the skill to put the puck in the net almost seemingly at will. Where they get caught up is trying too hard to make the pretty play and allowing themselves to be prodded and poked into taking bad penalties. With the Pens penalty killing struggling all season at 25th in the NHL (79.6%) and the Islanders power play coming in at 11th (19.9%) it is imperative for the skilled forwards to stay out of the penalty box.
Defense (Rich Diaz)
The Islanders’s Achilles heel is their defense, and when rumors surfaced regarding a trade for Mark Streit (Career: 491 GP, 65 G, 233 A) most Isles fans, including myself, were somewhat apprehensive at both the reality and practicality of such a move. Doing so, that is, trading Streit, for many (and in hindsight rightly so) meant the Islanders weren’t serious in making a playoff run. As much as I’ve criticized our Captain, he is one of only TWO defensemen who’s clocked serious NHL ice time, and with some ‘decent’ numbers to boot. So, letting go of our PP ‘quarterback’ meant that the Isles would have to depend upon Lubomir Visnovsky (Career: 860 GP, 120 G, 344 A) to take over the reigns and corral the remaining young Isles’s defensemen and mete out some leadership—a tough call for a player who dressed a month and change later than the rest of the league.
The Islanders lack of blueline coverage/protection and poor positioning, not to mention the relatively small stature of our aforementioned D-men stars (Streit 5’ 11” and Visnovsky at 5’ 10”) forces Jack Capuano to make some difficult and sometimes ‘erroneous’ changes to the lineup that is cause for erratic and/or downright atrocious backchecking and penalty killing duties. Mainly he’ll sit one of the more ‘slender’ or ‘less aggressive’ players for a Matt Carkner. Carkner’s primary role is to protect others and hold the line, etc. but his inability to perform at a high level has caused the Islanders goals in the most inopportune moments. Same goes for the forwards, the need for Eric Bolton’s size and meanness trumps, say, a Jesse Joensuu ability to see considerable ice time.
Yes, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic do bring the necessary grit needed for overall success, especially on the PK; and if Thomas Hickey plays a bit more positional hockey, he’ll bolster our chances at making trouble on the PP. But all three have had either slow starts, bad luck, and/or miscues that have cost the Islanders big.
So how do the Isles compare to the Penguins defensemen? Not well on paper. Kris Letang (5 G 33A) has more assists than seven Islander players combined, and Paul Martin (6 G 17A) is no slouch. Both are hefty players and both have wreaked havoc this year onto their opponents. A big question mark for Pittsburgh is the availability or lack thereof of standout Brooks Orpik , who often is matched against the opponents top forwards. Trade deadline acquisition Douglas Murray is expected to provide much needed snarl and physical play than the Pens have had in the past.
Goaltending (Mike Willhoft)
Based on numbers alone, both teams are relatively even in net. However, as has been seen in playoffs past, a hot goalie can carry a team in the postseason. And that “hot” goaltender isn’t always the one with the better regular-season stats…
It’s no secret that Nabokov has been the team’s workhorse all season. Nabby recorded all but one of the Islanders’ victories as the team clinched its first playoff berth since the 2006-07 season. Nabokov finished tied for fourth in the NHL with 24 wins, one behind league leaders Niklas Backstrom, Antti Niemi and Henrik Lundqvist.
His numbers down the stretch have been phenomenal: during the month of April, he did not lose a game in regulation, posting a 7-0-4 record on the strength of a 1.76 goals-against average. During their late-season run – 11-1-2 from Mar. 24 to Apr. 20, Nabokov allowed 2-or-fewer goals in 11 games.
Fleury has seen postseason action in each of the last six seasons, so he’s no stranger to playoff pressure. His career postseason numbers are very respectable: 43-32 with a 2.68 GAA and a .904 SV%. Down the stretch this season though, Fleury posted a middling 5-3-0 record, including regulation losses to the New York Rangers (6-1), the Buffalo Sabres (4-2) and the New Jersey Devils (3-2) – not exactly a murder’s row of teams based on their combined records and lack of offensive firepower.
Then again, Fleury doesn’t have to be Jacques Plante in order for his team to advance in the playoffs. Better-than-average numbers – not spectacular ones – will likely get the job done. He will more than likely provide just that for the No. 1-seeded Penguins in this series.
But Nabokov’s recent run of good form should have Penguins fans worried; if Nabby stays hot (á la Jaroslav Halák in 2010 or Jonathan Quick in 2012), the Islanders could make this series very interesting.
This isn’t to say Fleury isn’t a strong goaltender; it’s to highlight the fact that when these teams drop the puck on their series Wednesday night, the Isles will hold a slight edge in goal based on their netminder’s recent quality of play.
Coaching (Chris Triantafilis)
The New York Islanders head into the postseason with a coach that many may have never felt would have got them there. Jack Capuano started the season on the “hot-seat” in the eyes of the Isles’ fans. Perception only worsened when the Islanders went on another early-season losing streak, marred by the Islanders’ same old, bad habits. We called for change, but change never came.
Four months later, the Islanders are in the playoffs. The inevitable blown leads disappeared. In game match-ups were often in the Islanders’ favor, especially after reuniting the Bailey-Nielsen-Okposo line to shutdown the opposition’s top-line. Cappy even made great use of his depth, rotating D-men in the sixth spot during the Islanders’ impressive 18-game season-closing stretch, where the Isles went 11-2-5. This was easily the best stretch of hockey since the 2001-02 season for the Isles.
On the other side of this series, the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins are led with Dan Bylsma behind the bench. Byslma’s resume speaks for itself. After replacing Michael Therien in 2009, Bylsma has won a Stanley Cup, reached the playoffs in all five seasons with the organization, and won his first division title this season.
There’s no arguing that Bylsma has had more talent during any of his seasons in comparison to the rest of the NHL, but give credit where credit is due. His teams have never flopped. During his three 82-game campaigns, Byslma has never had fewer than 101 points.
Capuano and Byslma will be meeting in the postseason for the first time in their coaching careers.
Intangibles (Andy Graziano)
In the playoffs there needs to be a mindful assumption that referees will sometimes put their whistles away more often than not. And in this series, that cannot be understated. The Islanders power play success will be key for sustaining a series that most people think they have no chance of winning. The Penguins will not be intimidated, but surely the Isles can play the role of a swarm of summer gnats that often annoy enough at a summer barbecue to make you want to go inside. That is how the Flyers found success last season against a top flight offensive unit.
I have sometimes called the Pens ‘the dirtiest team in the league that nobody wants to talk about‘ and I certainly stand by that statement today, for it’s clear that Crosby is not ‘knocked’ down ever, he goes down on his own. If the officials let the Penguins run amok and get away with obvious infractions, then it could be a short series. Malkin, Kunitz, and of course the dubious and duplicitous Matt Cooke, have all had their opportunities to take shots at an opposition with no consequence.
If the Islanders get back to the way they played the final seven weeks of the season, excluding the final three games, this series will turn out to be an exciting, at times, high scoring romp with unexpected results. And in the NHL playoffs are we not supposed to expect the unexpected?
Stealing a game in Pittsburgh will be paramount as the Islanders need to gain early confidence in this series, returning to the Nassau Coliseum tied in the series. Then let section 329 and the old barn rock them to home ice advantage.
The journey begins tomorrow night. Fasten your seatbelt, adjust your seat back to its upright position and close all tray tables. We see some turbulence up ahead.
And in the odd event that my closing line did not excite you enough or give you the playoff jitters, Ray Liotta has a message for the Penguins and their fans…
As always, we thank the loyal and new reader to EyesOnIsles. We do this for you and extend our deepest commitment to bring you the best Isles coverage that we possibly can. Stick with us throughout the entire NHL playoffs to the Stanley Cup Final.
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