SCHEDULE: Game 1 at Islanders – Wednesday 6:30, Game 2 at Islanders – Friday 6:30, Game 3 at Penguins – Sunday 12pm, Game 4 at Penguins – April 16th 6:30
Ho-hum, here the Penguins are with 100 points again, and likely as anyone to get out of the Metro Division. Before anyone tells you what the Hawks have gone through the past four seasons was unavoidable due to the cap and success, ask yourselves if the Penguins ever went four seasons without a series win, or three without a playoff win, or even two without the playoffs. The answer…is no. They’ll meet up with the league’s biggest surprise, and its tightest defense. Which will probably make this one a slog to watch, other than the Nassau crowd being utterly bonkers and frothing and smelly, because it’s Long Island. This will be the first series the Islanders have started at home since the Mesozoic Era. Let’s run it through.
Goalies: You have to start with the Isles, and their tandem that brought home the Jennings Trophy. As of now, Barry Trotz hasn’t announced a starter, and the Isles might just tandem it up as they did throughout the season. While Trotz certainly did lock things down defensively after Doug Weight had turned the Isles’ zone into what Springfield Elementary looked like when Flanders was the principal, both Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner both performed above their expected ranges. Which makes beating the Islanders quickly almost an impossibility. However, playoff runs rarely work out when you’re switching goalies, the 2010 Flyers being something of an exception and that was due to incompetence. Generally you get one trigger-pull. The Isles are unique, and if one drops the ball they can just go with the other. But then there won’t be the safety net they’ve had all season. It’s a tough balance.
And if New York was hoping that their playoff fortunes hinge on getting significantly better goaltending than their opponent, they’ve picked the wrong fight here. Since December 1st, Matt Murray is rolling up with a .929 SV% overall. And a .933 at evens all season. And he’s already gone the route twice, so the stage won’t frighten him.
Defense: While the blue and orange faithful are probably hoping Barry Trotz can conjure more magic from last year, he doesn’t have the horses on the blue line this time around. I would argue John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov are better than anyone the Isles can boast. While promising, Pelech, Pulock, and Mayfield have only ever projected to be middle pairing guys. Nick Leddy was woeful for most of the season, as his freewheeling style doesn’t fit in with Trotz. Devon Toews has been something of a revelation, but you see how far Trotz trusts a rookie in the postseason. They play a style that shields them well enough, but there’s also a couple legends on the other side.
The Penguins will actually head into this series healthy on the blue line…for about five minutes. Again, it has the experience. There’s just way more firepower here with Letang and Schultz. Somehow, Erik Gudbranson didn’t sink them, and the Isles aren’t going to play fast enough to expose him and Jack Johnson. Maybe they capitalize on a mistake or two, but aren’t going to constantly cave them in.
Forwards: There have been series in the past when the Penguins won because they had Crosby and Malkin and the other team didn’t. Malkin had what everyone called an offseason, and he was pretty bad at times, and he still ended up with 72 points in 68 games. It’s still Evgeni Malkin. Jake Guentzel had 40 goals, and I’m not sure he does anything but stand still and let Crosby bank it off of him in the net, but he’s good enough to finish all those chances. Hornqvist is a nasty playoff weapon because he’s just around the net all the time, and especially in a series that could easily be trenched the fuck up, those kinds of goals and those kinds of scorers are paramount. PHIL!’s goal-scoring has dropped off a touch but he’s actually a better playmaker now. Again, the Pens don’t starve for weapons.
The Isles aren’t bereft of skill, it’s just not used that way. Barzal led them in scoring with 62 points. The Penguins feature four players who topped that, and a d-man who wasn’t far behind in Letang with 56. Brock Nelson is a hell of a second center, and Anders Lee could be a Hornqvist in the playoffs. But boy, beyond that…
You can write off Jordan Eberle now. This isn’t his time of year. His one playoff journey in EdMo saw him manage an 0-fer in 13 games. Sure, playoff narratives are built around grind-y, check-y, grunt-y guys like Casey Cizikas and ClusterFuck, but I’ll still take the Hall of Famers on the other side, thanks.
Prediction: Trotz is going try and make every game 2-1, because the Isles sure can’t shoot it out with the Penguins. And he did get one over the Penguins last year. He also lost to them twice. You honestly can’t count on the Islanders getting better goaltending than the Penguins will with how Murray is playing. Sure, it’s hockey and when things are this tight bounces can go either way. Still, if the goaltending is even, the offenses aren’t. Who do you think is more likely to get the 2 than the 1?
Penguins in six.