NHL East Division First Round Playoff Preview: New York Islanders versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pittsburgh finished tied with Washington with 77 points in the East Division. They claimed first place and home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs by winning the head-to-head series with the Capitals. Led by Sidney Crosby, the organization still have a core of players that won back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The Penguins started strong last season with improved defense, good goaltending, and positive contributions from the bottom of their lineup. However, the team hit a wall by winning only three of their last eleven games in the regular season before the stoppage of play. They returned to the bubble in the summer to outplay Montreal but get stymied by goalie Carey Price and lose to the Canadiens in the play-in qualifying round.
A slow start this season contributed to longtime general manager Jim Rutherford resigning on January 27th. The franchise hired Ron Hextall as their next general manager and brought in veteran executive Brian Burke as the President of Hockey Operations. The new brain trust made a splash at the trade deadline by acquiring versatile forward Jeff Carter from Los Angeles.
The Carter acquisition has fortified the forward depth of this Pittsburgh team. Carter has scored nine goals and assisted on another 11 goals in his 14 games in a Pens’ uniform joining Jared McCannon on the third line. Crosby anchors the top line, and he leads the team with 24 goals and 38 assists in 55 games. Kris Letang has 45 points in 55 games leading the top defensive pairing with Brian Dumoulin and quarterbacking the power play.
Goaltending is a question mark for head coach Mike Sullivan in the franchise’s first season since 2005 without either Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray between the pipes. Tristan Jarry has a 25-9-3 record, with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. Casey DeSmith has an 11-7-0 record, with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.
New York defeated Florida, Philadelphia, and Washington en route to the Eastern Conference finals where they lost in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in Tampa Bay. The Islanders finished in fourth place in the East Division this season with a 32-17-7 record. They lost seven of their last ten games going into the postseason, but they lost seven straight games before the stoppage of play last season before flipping the switch in the bubble.
The team endured a major blow in mid-March when their captain, Anders Lee, suffered a season-ending knee injury. The left winger on the top line had scored at least 20 goals in four straight seasons before his campaign was short-circuited this year. General manager Lou Lamoriello was active at the trade deadline by acquiring forward depth in Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from New Jersey and defenseman Brayden Coburn from Ottawa.
Center Matthew Barzal leads the team with 28 goals and 45 points. Defenseman Nick Leddy’s 29 assists are a team-best. Goalie Semyon Varlamov has a 19-11-4 record, with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. The Islanders are second in the NHL by allowing only 1.92 goals per game at even strength as they continue to be one of the stingiest defensive teams in the third season under head coach Barry Trotz.
Pittsburgh won six of the eight regular-season meetings between these two teams. However, Sullivan and Trotz will remember the opening round of the 2019 playoffs when the Islanders stunned the Penguins by sweeping them in four games.
The opening game of this series takes place on Sunday at noon ET. BetOnline lists Pittsburgh as a -125 money line favorite with the total set at 5.5. NBC has the broadcast.
Computer prediction: Pittsburgh Penguins win 4 games to 2