The New York Islanders open their first playoff series since 2007 tonight, with a lineup full of playoff newbies. Their opponent not only finished first in the Eastern Conference, it's also marked by stars (though Sidney Crosby is still out for Game 1), experienced playoff veterans, and even a couple of former team captains looking to seize glory in reduced roles on a contender.
Though the lockout-shortened season has muddied what a true sixth-, seventh-, eighth- or even ninth-place finisher is, this meeting with the feared Pittsburgh Penguins offers all the familiar ominous tones of a 1-vs.-8 matchup.
- The top seed should win but will be wracked with anxiety the longer the series carries on.
- The underdog should lose and be prone to folding, but will be buoyed by hope the longer they stay alive.
- In a short series, the Pens can afford injury to their star center more than the Islanders can afford injury to theirs. Knock on wood.
As much as we plow into underlying numbers, account for injuries and small sample sizes, and appeal to Frans or your deity of choice, there is no reason to expect a team, in its first playoff appearance, to defeat a battle-tested favorite that accumulated 17 more points in a 48-game season. The Penguins not only carry the burden of expectations, but also the drive of knowing they've let opportunities in their championship "window" slip away faster than you can say, "Pull that goalie."
Goalie, you say? That brings us to where the threats and opportunities in this series lie.
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury can be great. He can also be awful. He imploded in last year's postseason, and is capable of doing so at any moment. The Islanders will have to hope to take advantage of him. Unfortunately, if they do so, a very accomplished Tomas Vokoun waits to step in.
In the Islanders' only win of five meetings in 2013, they exploited Fleury for an early 4-0 lead. In three of the other four games, they faced Vokoun and beat him only three times on 101 shots. Purely by minutes played, the Islanders this season faced Fleury half as much as Vokoun but scored on Fleury twice as often.
Possession: A funny thing happened along the Islanders' April rise to a playoff spot: They weren't just lucky, they were good. Previous, frequent flaws (including their own goaltending) disappeared. Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey solidified a dangerous second pairing. The Islanders had three lines that were playing smart, driving play, outshooting opponents, and seeing results on the scoresheet.
The second line, a source of anxiety in the first third of the season, finally clicked with a healthy Josh Bailey, a rejuvenated Kyle Okposo, and a rebounding Frans Nielsen. That left the very dangerous Michael Grabner to elevate the third line, where Keith Aucoin and Colin McDonald have exceeded expectations and produced timely goals. (Isn't that the kind of unsung line that could catch playoff fire with a few Grabner quick-strikes?)
By possession metrics, the Islanders have actually been better than the Penguins for the year and particularly for the second half. There is even an argument to be made that the Penguins hurt this part of their game with their trade deadline acquisitions.
One example of that is Douglas Murray. Yes, he's "playoff-tested" and hits things -- and that can be a benefit if it injures or wears down an important player -- but he was also San Jose's #6 defenseman.
Injuries: It sure helps that Crosby is out for Game 1 and, whenever he returns, he'll be coming off a long layoff. Brooks Orpik's injury absence also hurts the Penguins' depth (though the more Kris Letang sees the ice, the worse for the Isles).
In contrast, the Islanders enter the series quite healthy. Before Game 1, at least. After years of leading the league (or being very close) in man-games lost to injury, they've had the healthiest of knock-on-wood seasons. But there are several Islanders whose loss to injury would be catastrophic.
Goaltending (again): It's a truth in hockey and it's thin margin between victory and defeat that any series can turn on the goalies. You can always say, "He needs to steal games." Official Moulson Brother-in-Law Jonathan Quick nearly stole one last night before he gave it away.
So in this series, we cannot acknowledge Fleury's flaws without also pointing out those of Evgeni Nabokov. His improved play was also part of the Islanders' April run, but his recent history does not suggest a guy who can still steal a series. The Islanders could outplay the Penguins and still lose for this reason.
The Isles swear Nabokov is key not just as a goalie but as an on-ice coach and traffic director. He'll need to do that well and, you know, make saves too.
Snipers and Special Teams: Except for those days when it's maddeningly passive, you probably think the Islanders have a good power play. (If you don't, you should.) At 19.9%, its conversion rate was tied for 10th in the league, and it generates the sixth-most shots per minute. Problem is, the Penguins' is better: Second-best production (24.7%), third-best shot generation. Hope for a Penguins slump.
But that threat and Nabokov's mediocre peak level is really where this series looks dangerous for the Isles. The Penguins have some great snipers and some set faceoff and power play plays that set them up to succeed. They had the highest goals per game at 3.38, which, sure, there's some shooting luck ready for regression there, but there is shooting talent as well.
In this season's five-game series, the Penguins outscored the Islanders 17-9 and won the faceoff battle 174-123.
Another concern is the penalty kill: Both teams are around 80% success rates on the PK, which is in the bottom third of the league, but the Islanders are much worse at shot prevention. Only Carolina, Washington and Buffalo conceded shots on goal at a higher rate on the PK this year.
|Game||Date||Matchup||Time (ET)||National TV|
|Game 1||Wed, May 1||Islanders at Penguins||7:30 p.m.||NBCSN, TSN, MSG+
|Game 2||Fri, May 3||Islanders at Penguins||7 p.m.||NBCSN, TSN, MSG+|
|Game 3||Sun, May 5||Penguins at Islanders||12:00 p.m.||NBC, TSN|
|Game 4||Tue, May 7||Penguins at Islanders||7 p.m.||NBCSN, TSN, MSG+|
|Game 5*||Thu, May 9||Islanders at Penguins||7 p.m.||TSN, MSG+|
|Game 6*||Sat, May 11||Penguins at Islanders||TBD||TSN, MSG+|
|Game 7*||Sun, May 12||Islanders at Penguins||TBD||TSN, MSG+|
So can the Islanders pull this off? Yeah, sure. They'd rather be facing someone else, and we don't know how they'll respond to adversity the first time it rises, as it surely will.
But one mark of their second-half play was that they no longer wilted after conceding the first goal. They no longer played third periods like they were scared to extend their lead or powerless to erase a deficit.
The playoffs are different, of course. The mental stimuli are turned way up, and as Ken Hitchcock likes to say, an opponent's goal is to "put you in uncomfortable situations."
No matter what happens, it's going to be great for this franchise as it takes a long-awaited next step, and as deputies-in-waiting like Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson watch from the sidelines.
So as with our other polls, give us your honest picks and thoughts on this series below. And get ready for some fun.
Our nightly First Islanders Goal game begins anew for the playoffs. Clean slate. Leave your picks for Game 1 here.