It’s finally time. After over a week of waiting, the Islanders will start play in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at home against the upstart Carolina Hurricanes. These teams have never faced off in a playoff series in their history, which means the NHL will get a brand new Metro Division matchup, allowing for a good opportunity for both franchises to spotlight themselves and the seasons they have had.
Before we get into the 10 keys to the series, it has to be mentioned that there’s going to be a narrative that acts as a referendum on analytics. There shouldn’t be. It’s true the Hurricanes were one of the best teams in the league when it comes to shot share, and the Islanders were... not. But in a small sample, anything can happen (and we have surely seen that in these playoffs), which is what makes this sport and league so unpredictable.
Let’s get to the list.
1. The Foundation of Goaltending
This is going to be the number one key on every playoff list. And that’s simply because with such a small sample of games at play, the most impactful position on the ice…. well, it has potential to have the highest impact. And to be sure, the Islanders — led by their Vezina candidate goaltender — have the edge here.
Through the first round of the playoffs, Robin Lehner is second in the league in goals saved above average. Facing a hefty 34.48 shots per hour at 5v5 play, Lehner was a brick wall during the Penguins series, highlighted by a .982 high danger save percentage.
Petr Mrazek, who is on a similar “prove it” contract as Lehner, comes in towards the bottom of the list with -1.84 GSAA during the first round. However, much of those results are offset by the fact that he only saw 22.65 shots per hour at 5v5 play (more on this later). Mrazek’s play in the first round was inconsistent as he had a .946 all situations save percentage in Hurricanes wins and an .833 all situations save percentage in their losses.
Mrazek’s inconsistency could be a factor in any series, but there’s a lack of predictability to goaltending. That means both he and Lehner’s metrics could look much different after this round than they did after the first round. The effect of that is that one of the big keys could come down to pure shot volume, given the level of play both goalies currently are at.
2. Special Teams Are Still Important
If this is starting to take on a similar theme as the last preview, that’s because it is. Again, because every little thing is so elevated in its importance during the postseason, things like special teams can win - or lose - a series in the margins.
Carolina’s power play was good during the regular season. Ranking fifth in the league in expected goals for per hour, they are able to generate chances. That dropped quite a bit in the playoffs, as their 4.57 expected goals per hour ranked 15th of 16 teams, potentially in part due to the losses of Michael Ferland and Andrei Svechnikov. Either way, like the Islanders, their chance generation was higher than their actual goal output, though less dramatically than New York’s.
The Islanders had a good playoff series in terms of quality chances in the power play, but as usual, their actual goals for lagged quite a bit behind. This is likely, in the Islanders’ case, due to the lack of elite shooters on the team. There’s something to be said for creating opportunities, but at this point of the year, converting them simply takes on a higher level of importance.
On the other hand, Carolina’s penalty kill looked pretty vulnerable in the first round. That said, there’s some necessary context to call out — they were facing the Washington Capitals. During the course of the regular season, the Hurricanes’ 6.02 expected goals against per hour ranked in the top five in the league, and their goaltending held up enough to rank eighth in terms of actual goals against per hour. So, it’s unclear if their struggles in the last round were due to simply facing a highly skilled Capitals team or if there’s some weaknesses that can be exploited.
The Islanders had a poor penalty kill during the season. Ranking a dismal 28th in expected goals against per hour and 23rd in actual goals against per hour, the team struggled a lot more than their higher level metrics would indicate. Still, the Islanders did a good job against an elite Penguins power play and held them to just a single goal during the first round. Much of that was due to Lehner, but their 5.94 expected goals against per hour ranked 7th among playoff teams, which is perfectly fine given the circumstance.
Like goaltending, special teams is pretty difficult to project over the course of a series. But, both teams seem to struggle with converting on the power play and overall Carolina’s penalty kill was stronger than New York’s during the season. There’s an edge to Carolina on special teams as a whole given their penalty kill prowess, but this is an area the Islanders could overcome as they did against Pittsburgh.
3. The Carolina Forecheck
I think Carolina’s layered approach to forechecking is fun to watch. One peels off, another comes in. Constant pressure at the point of the breakout. Tough to move out of it because of how quickly the forecheckers replace each other.— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) April 25, 2019
The strengths of the Hurricanes are in their forecheck and their blue-line defense. We’ll take a look at both of these, but let’s start with the forecheck. As in the tweet above, Carolina plays an aggressive forecheck, which is similar to the Islanders. The best way to show how the tweet above plays out is through video, so let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
This first play is from Game 6 against Washington. Here we see Aho forechecking, but even before the turnover happens, we can see Niederreiter as the F2 in perfect position should Aho need to peel off. Teravainen acts as the F3 as part of that third layer of attack. In this case, Aho is able to force the turnover and immediately sees Teravainen streaking down the middle of the ice for a slot shot opportunity. However, the foundation here would have put continual pressure on Washington as they work to break the puck out of the zone.
A similar play unfolded on the winning goal last night. Off the lost draw, Brock McGinn starts to forecheck on the Capitals defense with Justin Williams providing layered support. McGinn sees Williams and peels off as Williams is able to check Matt Niskanen forcing a turnover and keep-in at the blue line. This ultimately led to the winning goal, but again shows the prowess of such a layered forecheck.
This is something the Islanders’ defensemen will need to be hyper-aware of over the course of the series, especially given the propensity of turnovers that can be forced through its aggressiveness.
4. Breaking Through The Defensive Wall
The other main strength of the Hurricanes is their ability to defend their blueline. In fact, with the data that Corey Sznajder has recorded, we can see that their defensive corps simply restricts entries.
Five of the six regular Hurricanes defensemen — Brett Pesce, (old friend) Calvin de Haan, Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, and Justin Faulk — appear in the top right quadrant entitled “No Entries Allowed.” In other words, getting the puck in the offensive zone is going to be a challenge for the Islanders.
Interestingly, the Islanders are one of the heaviest “dump-and-chase” (or chip-and-chase) teams in the league. This could play to their advantage if they are able to get in and forecheck aggressively against the Carolina defense.
In other words, the Islanders may want to play Carolina’s own game against themselves. New York’s heavy forecheck led them to a fourth ranked 2.63 expected goals per hour in the first round, so it has brought them success in the recent past. However, as we can see below, where the team places the puck can make all the difference — and spoiler alert, Carolina is quite good at managing that — here’s one example (of many):
How the Islanders break through against such a tough defense is a juxtaposition from the Pittsburgh series and will be something to watch as this series unfolds.
5. It’s Been A While
The Islanders are 3-1 against the Hurricanes this season.
Throw it out.
Granted, regular season results aren’t predictive of playoff results to begin with, but it’s especially true in this case as these two teams haven’t played each other since Jan. 8. That’s a long time. In fact, since New Year’s Eve, Carolina has played to the second best points percentage in the league.
The Islanders, of course, are no slouches either. Ranking sixth in points percentage over the same time period, this series pits two of the league’s strongest teams through the calendar year against each other. And although these aren’t the “name brand” teams that everyone expected in this position, these are two teams who deserve to be in this spot.
Regardless, there’s not as much familiarity as these teams think they have. The Hurricanes’ shrewd trade to acquire Nino Niederreiter highlights a major improvement since that game. In fact, the former Isles’ first round draft pick contributed 30 points in 36 games for Carolina since his arrival. Petr Mrazek, who was inconsistent early on, went 15-6-1 with a .925 save percentage since that game. The Hurricanes also were fourth in the league in expected goal share (54.55%), tenth in scoring chance share (53.16%), and ninth in high danger chance share (53.21%).
That said, the Islanders were quite solid too in the latter portion of the year. Outside of a three week slump, the Isles still — since that game — finished 12th in expected goal percentage (51.16%), 15th in scoring chance share (50.24%), and seventh in high danger chance share (56.28%). Though much of the narrative surrounding analytics will call this a giant mismatch, the numbers over the second half of the year don’t really indicate these teams are that far off from each other.
6. Rest is Best? Or...
By now, you all know the narrative. When the two teams hit the ice on Friday, it will be the Islanders’ first game in 10 days, ending a franchise record in terms of “days off following winning a playoff series.” The team, rightfully, is spinning that as a positive. Why shouldn’t they? They have earned their time off, earned the right to watch the Hurricanes and Capitals in a double overtime of Game 7, and earned the right to get healthier.
But the truth is there are a lot of factors that could play into this, and whatever the result is will drive the narrative. It shouldn’t. There, of course, possibly could be some impacts early in the series: rust for New York, fatigue for Carolina. But ultimately, once the series gets in the swing of things, no one is going to be blaming or lauding the amount of rest the Islanders had or that the Hurricanes did not have.
There have been a small amount of instances where this scenario has played out, and it has not gone well for the rested team.
As far as I can tell, only three previous times this century has a team that swept an NHL playoff series faced a team in next round that was coming off a Game 7. (Blues, 2001; Ducks, 2003; Bruins, 2009.) All three lost. (Pending @ehornick confirming I got this right.) #Isles— Neil Best (@sportswatch) April 23, 2019
Interestingly enough, this exact circumstance is playing out in both Eastern Conference series, so if nothing else, consider it a fun experiment or something along those lines.
7. Don’t Underestimate the Niederreiter-Aho-Teravainen Line
The Hurricanes’ version of Sebastian Aho might still be the best kept secret at a national level, but after a 30-goal and 83-point season, maybe that starts to change with Carolina’s success. In a new line formed for the playoffs, Carolina’s top line center is flanked by Teuvo Tervainen (21-55-76 in 82 games) and (another old friend) Nino Niederreiter (14-16-30 in 36 games) to make up one of the most underrated top lines in the league.
Rod Brind’Amour’s strategy worked as the numbers are ridiculous. In 42 minutes during the first round, when the trio was on the ice, the Hurricanes accounted for a 67.82% shot share, 77.59% of expected goals, 65% of scoring chances, and 76.19% of high danger chances. Should the line stay together during the next round, the Islanders are going to have to be mindful of the possession advantage this trio obtained against Washington.
Positively for the Islanders, this is certainly an area where home ice advantage can come into play. After the job they did on Sidney Crosby’s line in the first round, it seems likely Barry Trotz will counter by matching the Casey Cizikas line up against them, with a backup option of using the Brock Nelson line. Similarly, one would expect Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech to take on the role of primary defenders against the Aho line at home. However, formulas and plans can change often this time of year so the Islanders will need to be flexible, especially if Brind’Amour moves Teravainen down to the second line as he’s done in the past.
The bottom line here? These guys don’t have the star power names like some of the Penguins do, but they are one of the most dangerous lines in the league at the moment.
8. The Situations of Michael Ferland and Andrei Svechnikov
Carolina lost two important forwards during Game 3 of the first round, with second-overall pick Andrei Svechnikov concussed after losing a fight against Alex Ovechkin, and Michael Ferland out with an undisclosed injury.
The big loss for Carolina is clearly Svechnikov, who scored 20 goals in his rookie campaign, but is a major driver at even strength play. The heatmap above shows the quality of shots the Hurricanes take when he’s on the ice, and his on-ice offensive threat of +23% is ridiculously good. It’s still unclear when he’ll be back, but if he plays during the Islanders series, he’ll be an additional force the Islanders will have to handle (both at even strength and the power play).
League parity and the power of momentum and perseverance the main story in round one. Sounds like the Canes could get Ferland back as early as game 2 as the Canes hope to keep rolling. https://t.co/wdapgka1ae— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) April 25, 2019
As per the above tweet, Michael Ferland could be back as soon as Sunday’s Game 2. Ferland’s value is a bit more modest at even strength. However, his return will boost a struggling Carolina power play, which could be one of those “important in the margins” kind of things. Ferland’s return will also allow Carolina to balance out their deployment, which could residually and positively impact some of Carolina’s more prominent players over the course of the series.
Svechnikov, in particular, is the higher threat for the Islanders, but getting either of these players back could affect the series in a tangible way for Carolina.
9. The Impact of Johnny Boychuk’s Absence
This is something that I largely touched upon in Monday’s piece, but this is still an important factor heading into this series. Thomas Hickey will be stepping into Boychuk’s spot next to Nick Leddy, per all reports from practice, which does mean the Islanders will be using a lefty-lefty pairing for this series.
In limited time this season, Leddy and Hickey have played well together, and the Islanders’ home ice advantage will be one that Barry Trotz could exploit from a deployment and matchup perspective. This is an added marginal advantage, especially when one considers that this would not have been the case against a much heavier, battle-tested team in the Capitals (especially with Hickey played the right side against left wing Alex Ovechkin).
As noted in Monday’s analysis, Boychuk and Hickey play different styles but can both be effective in their roles. Per HockeyViz’s Isolated Impact charts above, both players have had a similar defensive impact at even strength. Offensively, shots are coming from the same area of the ice, but Hickey is more offensively threatening (which makes sense given his puck-moving ability and mobility).
Where Boychuk will be missed immensely is on the penalty kill, where his body of work is quite strong. The Islanders will need Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield to step up in his stead on the right side, but the good news is the Isles could do a lot worse than that.
Boychuk’s loss isn’t something to gloss over, but the team is in a position where they could make it less of an issue than in previous years. What the loss objectively does do is make the defensive corps a little more fragile in its depth, wherein losing another defenseman could produce some tangible troubles for the Isles.
10. Bounces, Again
What, you think you made it through this entire thing and I wasn’t going to talk about getting bounces?
We all just watched a roller coaster of a first round. Favorites losing left and right, surprising sweeps, every division winner now golfing. There’s a lot of variance that goes into these things, and this series will be no different. Considering these teams play a certain style that could result in somewhat of a chess match, the Islanders will again need to work for their bounces.
Effort level is obviously not going to be an issue, but sometimes the cookie crumbles in a certain way, and that’s simply something you don’t want to be on the losing end for. It’s also something that can be pretty uncontrollable.
This isn’t so much something to watch as much as it is the reality of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so it, too, takes its place as an evergreen factor when discussing matchups and previews.
So… with that all said….
Here we go again.
Data for this piece by a variety of amazing places: NaturalStatTrick.com, Evolving-Hockey.com, HockeyViz.com, MoneyPuck.com, Sean Tierney’s Tableau Library, Hockey-Reference.com, Corey Sznajder’s Tableau Library