It’s 2019 and playoff games are going to be played at the Nassau Coliseum. That’s kind of a funny thought if you picture yourself back in I don’t know, any day since Spring 2015.
Nonetheless, it’s the truth as the Islanders get ready to do battle against the Pittsburgh Penguins for the fifth time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The last iteration, played in 2013, was a surprising competitive clash where the top seeded Penguins skirted by in six games over the (at the time) upstart Islanders. That, of course, was the first time the Penguins had beaten the Islanders in the playoffs; New York had won the first three editions in 1975, 1982, and 1993 respectively.
This year’s version, decidedly considered to be one of the most competitive series in the field, will feature a (yet again) surprising Islanders club and a Penguins club who it feels like nobody actually has a good read on. But don’t kid yourselves, this is still a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and so forth. So let’s dive in and take an analytical look at the ten most important keys for the Islanders heading into this year’s first round.
1. The Goaltending Battle
The strength of the Islanders this year has been their goaltending. Officially the winners of the Jennings trophy, the Isles’ tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss played a remarkably important role in the resurgence of the club. As we see above, both rank in the top 5 this season for Goals Saved Above Expectation via Evolving-Hockey. Essentially, this shows in visual form exactly how much they actually covered for infrequent defensive breakdowns. It’s unclear how Barry Trotz is going to utilize his goalies in the first round (though I’d expect Lehner gets the Game 1 nod), but it would be hard - if not impossible - to make a “wrong call.”
The Penguins will be riding on the back of Matt Murray, a two-time Stanley Cup champion who has been just slightly above average for the season. But, that doesn’t simply give the Islanders the advantage on such a volatile position. Over the last 10 games, Murray is sporting a .957 5v5 save percentage, saving 244 of 255 shots. His overall save percentage during that time is .935, which ranks tenth in the league… two spots behind Robin Lehner (.942) per Natural Stat Trick.
Summation: The reason this is the first listed “key” is because it is simply the most important. Despite the fact that Murray appears to be a brick wall at the moment, the Islanders are going to need one (or both) of Robin Lehner or Thomas Greiss to take control of this series. With the amount of offense the Penguins have, any slip in play could lead to an early exit. This is one area that is a “must win” for New York.
2. Don’t Take Penalties At All
In case anyone was not aware, the Penguins have a lot of skilled players. Like, a lot of them. And those skilled players can make the most of some tight defensive situations. Case in point? The Penguins power play.
Per Evolving Hockey, the Penguins’ power play finished a modest 15th (below the Islanders, even!) in expected goals for per hour (6.79). The Penguins also finished 4th in actual goals scored per hour in power play situations (9.16). I’m not saying that’s a huge discrepancy… actually, yes I am. That’s a lot and it speaks directly towards the talent level they possess.
The Islanders, on the other hand, were 30th in the league in expected goals against per hour (8.00). That’s quite bad, and that’s not going to play well against Sidney Crosby, Evge-- you know what, you all know the list.
So what that means is the Isles’ goalies are going to have to play out of their mind in these situations. But moreover, the Penguins also have clear shot patterns on their power play, as seen below from HockeyViz.
We’ll get to more on this later, but if the forwards stay aggressive and in position up top and the defense is able to control the front of the net, the Penguins will need to use all of their skill to get the shots they want off.
Summation: The Penguins power play is good. It is probably wise to not take any penalties, ever.
3. Find a Way to Play Even on Special Teams
Let’s move on to the Islanders’ power play, wherein it’s not exactly a state secret there have been some… problems. The power play, which is basically a well-known disaster at this point, finished 29th in the league (14.54%).
It might be hard to believe, but per Evolving Hockey, the Islanders were actually 11th in the league in expected goals for per hour on the power play (6.97), but 28th in actual goals for per hour (5.35). They will have a tough test against Pittsburgh here, however, as the Penguins finished tied for 7th in the league in expected goals against per hour (6.12) in shorthanded situations. Their actual penalty kill fared worse due to, as previously mentioned, some shaky goaltending throughout the year.
Summation: The Islanders power play has been a lot worse than it reasonably should be, based on expected goal rates. The Penguins’ penalty kill has also been worse than it should be looking at similar metrics. But none of that really matters now. As alluded to above, special teams can play a big role in a short playoff series - the Islanders cannot let special teams define the outcome of the series.
4. Protect the Front of the Net
I’m guessing that when you opened this piece from a complete analytics nerd, you may not have expected to see such a boring hockey cliche as one of the most important keys to the series. In this case, however, it rings true.
The above heatmap from HockeyViz.com shows where the Penguins like to take their shots at 5v5. There’s a very distinct red area in the front of the net, which shows that they like to shoot from high danger areas.
In a specific example, let’s take a look at Jake Guentzel, newly accomplished 40-goal scorer, who is as good as his raw stat line shows. Also from HockeyViz, we can see that when Guentzel is on the ice, the Penguins are getting a lot of premier scoring opportunities. Part of that, of course, is the impact that linemate Sidney Crosby has. But it also speaks to how much of a elite power forward Guentzel has developed into. For the Islanders to win this series, they’ll need to make sure that the Penguins are unable to park themselves in front for high danger chances.
Summation: The Penguins, like the Islanders, are a team that values quality over quantity. Given the skill that the Penguins possess, the Islanders will need to make sure they are tight defensively especially in front of the net.
5. Power Versus Power
The truth of the matter is the Penguins forwards are a lot more talented than the Isles’ forwards are. But, despite the connotations that the Islanders are nothing more than “a sum of their parts,” New York has a few good players of their own. If we look at Sean Tierney’s chart above depicting expected goal rates relative to league average, quite a few of Islander forwards rank within the right quadrants.
For the Islanders to win this series, they can’t be caught matching “defensive” units like the Valtteri Filppula line up against the Sidney Crosby line. It would be a mismatch of one of the highest orders, given how well Crosby and his line control the play. However, the bigger logos - represented by Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle - could be up to the task. At the very least, they put the Islanders in the best position to defend Crosby while keeping the depth in place to handle Pittsburgh’s bottom lines offensively.
Summation: There’s no good way to really stop Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, especially in the offensive zone. The only real way to do that is to keep them out of the offensive zone entirely. The players that give the Islanders the best chance to keep play in Pittsburgh’s zone are the Isles’ best players, and those are the matchups Barry Trotz should be looking to exploit during Islander home games.
6. Pittsburgh’s Defense Might Be Underrated… Except Jack Johnson
This really should be named “Exploit Jack Johnson” because he’s the clear weak link among Pittsburgh defenders. Johnson, a newcomer to Pittsburgh this year after signing a long-term deal, really struggles in the defensive zone as seen above in the HockeyViz.com heatmap.
He especially struggles down low, which is good news from the Islanders who like to attack the exact area where Johnson especially struggles (as seen above). The reason Johnson was brought up, specifically, is because this is the one area where the Islanders really can hone in on their strengths. Much of the other defenders on Pittsburgh - Kris Letang, Brian Duomolin (who will be returning in Game 1), and Olli Maatta are solid defenders who will either block one side of the ice or won’t even be in the defensive zone enough to make a negative impact.
That leads us to Erik Gudbranson, a frequently maligned defender who has struggled basically throughout his entire career in Florida and Vancouver. But since coming over to Pittsburgh, he’s been one of the Penguins’ best defenders.
We can see that above on HockeyViz’s Threat Chart, where Gudbranson’s on-ice threat has been basically as good as Sidney Crosby’s. That doesn’t mean Gudbranson is “good,” but it means he’s not limiting the impact his teammates have been making offensively. In other words, don’t let his reputation fool you. This isn’t the mismatch everyone may assume when reading through Pittsburgh’s roster.
Summation: The Islanders will need to use offensive matchups against Jack Johnson at home as much as possible, especially with offensive zone starts. Most of Pittsburgh’s other defenders are quite solid which will impact the Isles’ ability to create quality chances in the offensive zone.
7. Maximizing The Lineup
If you have read my work over the year, you’d know that I have highly touted the defensive game of Michael Dal Colle. The line he’s been playing on - with Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson - has been really strong, and have played to “plus-plus” shot share metrics over the last few games. Fast forward to today and…
Tom Kuhnhackl again takes first rotation with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) April 9, 2019
Here’s the thing. This is a veteran coach trusting his veteran players, and for those who have followed the NHL closely over the years, this is not a very uncommon “lean” (we’ll call it as such, for now). But, the difference between Michael Dal Colle and Tom Kuhnhackl from a shot share perspective is pretty drastic.
The Islanders are going to have to win this series based on their defensive play, as I think is well established by this portion of the article. Removing a player with elite shot quality chance suppression and adding a player with objectively bad shot quality share metrics can absolutely impact the team over time. It’s not something that will be noticed in a single shift - maybe not even a single game - but in terms of the “domino effect” (as I like to call it), it can create in-game momentum, matchup favorability, among other subtle effects.
To say that a single lineup decision such as Kuhnhackl-for-Dal Colle would make-or-break the series for New York is a bit of a stretch. However, it could have an impact. And in a series where most models have this is as an extremely tight series that could go in any direction, it would behoove the Islanders to ensure their best players are on the ice as much as possible.
Summation: Play your best players. That simple.
8. The Nassau Coliseum Factor
Let’s move to some more intangible storylines of this series, now…
Islander fans love the Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders themselves love the Nassau Coliseum.
In a world where second chances are not always granted, the Islanders’ franchise finds themselves getting a gift that gives them a chance to rekindle some magic at the once-aptly-nicknamed “Fort Neverlose.”
There’s nothing analytical about this aspect, but it would be ignorant to move past it. For the first time since 1988, the Islanders have home-ice advantage, which means there could be as many as four home games played at the old barn. And don’t kid yourselves, there’s a real aura about the atmosphere.
There are a few Penguins who were part of the series between these two clubs in 2013. They know what the Coliseum is about, but playing in a tough atmosphere is never easy and Islander fans have the opportunity to let their voices be heard. It’s really that simple.
Summation: The Islanders have one of the true home ice advantages in the NHL. It’s intangible, but the love affair with that building is real. Leveraging that to the Isles’ advantage is something that could be a real narrative in this series.
9. Play Physical, Not Reckless
We mentioned before that it would be in New York’s best interest to simply not take any penalties in the series. Of course, that’s not going to happen, but a controlled physical game is something the Islanders can play quite well.
The last time these two teams met, there was an underlying storyline between Travis Hamonic and Evgeni Malkin, which erupted at the end of Game 4 on Long Island, a 6-4 Islanders win. Granted, this was before the Penguins won back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017, but there was something to getting under the skin of Malkin over the course of the series.
Because the Islanders are not overly skilled, they are going to have to leverage some *clean* gamesmanship, an advantage that they should possess. Again, in a series that could be decidedly close, every little thing can have an impact. This is one area that will be largely ignored, but could play well to the Isles’ advantage.
Summation: Win the battles.
10. “Get The Bounces”
Finally, this last key is that simple. Hockey is random - or, random things happen in hockey all the time. That lends itself to weird things that could play out over a short period of time. If we look at Micah Blake McCurdy’s model, we can see that it basically has this series as close as humanly possible.
In that situation, sometimes it is just better to be lucky. That’s not to say one should rely on luck, but no reason to turn it down if it comes.
Summation: Whether you want to admit it or not, luck matters - especially in a short best-of-7 series. And whichever of these teams gets more of it may end up winning the series.
With that, off we go.