Last week, the New York Islanders swept the Pittsburgh Penguins off the face of the earth. What comes next for the once-proud franchise from the Steel City after that abomination of a performance is anybody’s guess. As for the Islanders, they’re headed for round two, awaiting the winner of tonight’s Game 7 between Washington and Carolina.
What follows is a list of my thoughts, observations and plays of interest from the Islanders utter dismantling of the Penguins.
1. We’ve read a lot about the Isles’ mantra this season: We Before Me. The Islanders played like a true team all year long. Every forward, defenseman and goalie on the roster contributed to the Isles’ success.
2. Still, heading into Game 1, I wasn’t buying this idea I came across in preview after preview after preview that the Islanders could only win if they got scoring from all four lines. As if the team was completely lacking in high-end talent capable of swinging a playoff series.
3. While it’s true the Isles didn’t have any top-50 scorers, they probably would have if Trotz hadn’t waited until the end of the season to put together the Eberle-Barzal-Lee line. Once he did, that unit had great underlying numbers and started to produce down the stretch.
4. That top scoring line was dynamic in this series, which the Penguins lost hilariously in four games. Eberle was the star of the show, scoring a goal in each of the four games and adding two assists for a team-high six points.
5. Eberle accounted for 43% of the Islanders offense (six of their 14 goals). He was on the ice for 8 Islanders goals and 0 Penguins goals. He also gave a stirring rendition of the national anthem before Game 4, not once going off key.
6. All of Eberle’s goals were important. Two of them tied the game; the other two put the Islanders up by one. There were some beauties in there, too, where he shows off his quick hands and shooting accuracy.
Here are all four goals Eberle scored in the Islanders’ dominant sweep over the hapless Penguins:
7. Unfortunately, all the hard work the Islanders did to depress Eberle’s value in his contract year by keeping him away from Barzal (his favored linemate) has now been undone. This organization just can’t get anything right.
8. Speaking of Barzal, he had himself an impressive playoff debut, notching five assists in his first four postseason games. He was the primary catalyst behind Bailey’s OT goal in Game 1, setting it up with a beautiful rush. I’d show you the play but I already have it memorized so I don’t really need to see it anymore.
9. Here’s what Barzal said about being reunited with Eberle, per The Athletic:
“When Barry put us back with each other, we basically said, ‘We’re going to force him to trust us.’ We tried to make it so he couldn’t break us up. What we did last year was great, but it’s a new system and we had to play different. We’re not just out there gunning for points.”
“We tried to make it so he couldn’t break us up.”
That just warms the heart, doesn’t it?
10. Unsurprisingly, the Pens tried to be overly-physical with Barzal at different points of the series, which they lost in humiliating fashion, 4-0. They were very clever and subtle about it, picking and choosing their spots so as not to take any extra liberties in view of the refs.
11. Apparently, Brian Dumoulin’s lifelong dream has been to get called for a cross-checking penalty in the NHL. That seems to be his primary objective on this play. It’s possible that a seventh cross-check to the back of the defenseless Barzal would’ve gotten the job done, though we can’t be sure.
12. Butchie’s been talking about this for at least two years now. As the NHL has focused its attention more on certain infractions — hits to the head, holding, interference, even delay of game — it has shifted away, for some reason, from cross-checking.
13. What I don’t get about this is we’re in an era where the NHL has to at least pretend to care about player safety. And a cross-check is one of the more violent-looking penalties in the book. Not like the NHL should make decisions based solely on “bad optics,” but cross-checking is dangerous, too. I really don’t get why it’s not policed in a sensible manner.
15. One thing I love about Barzal though is he doesn’t back down from physical confrontation. After Beauvillier’s game-tying goal in Game 2, both Barzal and Eberle got in there and stirred some shit up:
We obviously don’t want these guys going overboard with this stuff but you gotta love seeing this kind of intensity and fight from the team’s most-skilled players.
16. I was very encouraged by Nick Leddy’s play in this series. He was all over the place. It wasn’t just the exhilarating up-ice rushes, of which he had a few, but the way he battled hard in his own zone.
17. Check out this video I made showing some really good plays Leddy made during the first round series in which the Islanders annihilated the piss-poor Penguins:
18. Leddy led all defensemen and was third on the team (after Barzal and Eberle) in on-ice expected goal %. I have no idea what that means, but all the cool kids are using that stat and I want to be cool too.
19. Okay seriously now, it just means when Leddy was on the ice, the Islanders generated enough quality chances to have been expected to out-score Pittsburgh by the 3rd-highest margin on the team.
20. One play that really stood out to me came early in the series. This is playoff hockey right here. After collecting a rebound, Leddy’s under heavy pressure from Malkin and Bjugstad (two big guys) below his own goal line. They’re all over him and look like they’re about to steal the puck away, but Leddy fights like hell to escape with the puck and get the breakout started.
You can tell Leddy’s using every last drop of effort here. This is the kind of battle level that would make Cappy proud.
21. I’m not pointing this out because I have any doubts about Nick Leddy’s work ethic. It’s just that this is the exact kind of spot it seems Leddy has struggled so much with, both last season and in parts of this season.
He’s turned the puck over a lot in spots like this, seemingly no longer able to utilize his speed to escape the forecheck as reliably as he used to. So it was nice to see him winning these tough battles against Pittsburgh, which is the team the Islanders just swept 4-0.
22. With his defensive partner Johnny Boychuk out 3-4 weeks with a lower-body injury, it’s unclear who Leddy will be paired up with once the next round begins. Whether it’s overtime hero Thomas Hickey that gets slotted into Boychuk’s spot or Trotz decides to rearrange multiple pairings, it’ll be key for Leddy to continue his solid play from round one.
23. If there’s one thing people who know me will tell you, it’s that I absolutely love Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech. I had to show him some tough love last season and point out some of his bad habits, since it was clear his coach wasn’t feeling up to it.
24. Pelech has improved significantly this season under Barry Trotz. He and Ryan Pulock are the Islanders’ top defensive pairing right now. They did an exceptional job shutting down Pittsburgh’s top forwards and will no doubt be seeing plenty of Alex Ovechkin or Sebastian Aho over the next few weeks.
25. Here’s an absolutely beautiful one-on-one defensive play Pelech made in Game 4 against a streaking Malkin.
On this play, Pelech resembles a deadly cobra snake with the way he uses his body to separate Malkin from the puck. A highly venomous, deadly, slightly-balding cobra. I guess that’s why they call him The Cobra.
The Penguins Lacked Urgency
26. I watched several Pens games in the final two weeks of the season once it became clear they were the Islanders’ most-likely first-round opponent. I came away wholly unimpressed with their quality of play. Even with a playoff spot on the line, they just weren’t playing with the same urgency I’ve grown accustomed to seeing from them over the last decade.
27. They continued their uninspiring play in this series. No doubt the Islanders’ relentless forecheck and neutral zone trap played a role in that, but as a whole the Pens just couldn’t seem to match the Isles’ intensity and work ethic.
28. Here’s one example of what I’m talking about. This is something every coach I’ve ever had brought up at one point or another. When you’re on the power play, you cannot get out-numbered in a puck battle along the boards. You just can’t.
It doesn’t matter if your teammate looks like he’s going to win the battle and come out with possession. It doesn't matter if you think it's too late. If your teammate is battling for the puck against two guys along the boards, and your team has the man advantage, you gotta go give him some support.
Here, McCann’s got plenty of time to give Crosby some support on the sidewall, but he just stands there beside the net, watching, leaving Crosby by himself to battle against two Islanders.
29. When Andrew Ladd went down with a season-ending injury, some Islanders fans were hoping to see his roster spot go to late-blooming rookie forward Michael Dal Colle. MDC played well this season — particularly on defense — but Trotz opted to go with the veteran and two-time Cup winner, Tom Kuhnhackl.
Kuhnhackl was solid against his former team. He forced a few turnovers on the back-check, helped create a big goal in Game 4 with the forecheck and even showed some offensive creativity.
30. I’m pretty sure I’ve never spelled his name right in the comments section. Like, not once. It’s the second ‘h’ that always gets me. So here’s a good way to remember it. Just split the name into two parts: Kuhn + hackl.
31. He may not have the success rate of a broken clock but Leo Komarov scored a goal in Game 3 of this series. That’s not something we all dreamt at the same exact time; it actually happened. It was his first goal in at least twenty years and it was glorious.
32. He also ran around doing Leo Komarov things. His forecheck in the third period of Game 1 led directly to Leddy’s go-ahead goal. Then in Game 2, he got in a scuffle with a few Pens that gave us the following picture.
I think this sums up the Leo Komarov Experience perfectly:
Pour Out a Little Liquor
33. When you’ve got a moment, why don’t you head to the corner and pour some liquor out on the curb for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Up 3-2 in the series, the Leafs lost Game 6 at home and Game 7 in Boston last night.
34. John Tavares chose the Leafs over the Islanders. He wanted to go home, so he went home. And home is where he’ll be, watching the Islanders in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Sometimes the stars just align, don’t they?
This is the best GIF I’ve ever seen in my life pic.twitter.com/Rfi77YttOF— Kirsten (@kirst_alyssa) April 24, 2019
Bringing it Home
35. It’s too bad the Islanders will be playing the rest of their home playoff games in Barclays Center and not in Nassau Coliseum. The fans prefer the Coliseum. The players prefer the Coliseum. The coach prefers the Coliseum. The GM prefers the Coliseum.
But the games need to be in Barclays Center, you see, because it has 89 more suites and 1,900 more seats, and a couple of those seats might actually have a view of the entire ice surface! Wow, so fancy!
36. But forget all that. I’m enjoying this ride way too much to let that bother me. For this is the best Islanders team I’ve ever seen.
Never in my life have I seen the Islanders earn as many as the 103 points they had this season.
Never in my life have I seen the Islanders get home ice advantage in a playoff series.
Never in my life have I seen the Islanders go up 2-0 in a playoff series, or 3-0, or win in a 4-0 sweep.
Never in my life have I seen the Islanders do the things they are now doing.
But they’re doing them now, alright, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
See you in Round Two.