When the 2013 season ended, the prognosticaters had pretty much given the Stanley Cup to the Penguins, especially given the excellent trade deadline moves that complemented a roster replete with several potential Hall Of Famers. To say the least, their first round opponents, the New York Islanders, have the deck stacked squarely against them.
The Pens entered this series with one of the strongest lineups in recent memory. The forward lines bolster a couple of potential Hall Of Famers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while 500 goal scorer Jarome Iginla is a shoe-in when he retires. The defense is a mix of puck movers Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen along with stay-at-home guys Douglas Murray and Paul Martin. Throw in the physical Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland, and this is a very formidable group. The backstop of the Penguins is Stanley Cup champion and Gold Medal recipient Marc-Andre Fleury along with his capable back-up Tomas Voukon.
Meanwhile, the Islanders come into this series with a wealth of young but inexperienced talent. Forwards John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson will star for the Islanders for years to come, while the defense has no true stars other than veteran Lubomir Visnovsky. The goaltender is 37-year-old Evgeni Nabokov, who starred for the San Jose Sharks for years before becoming an Islander.
The series began as most experts predicted, the Pens blowing out the Islanders 5-0 and seemingly on their way to a sweep. But the Islanders pushed back in Game Two, surprising the Pens and evening the series at one game apiece. Most prognosticators attributed this to the Pens being overconfident and thinking that they could win the series on talent alone. The problem is that the Islanders were not only out-working the Pens but their goalie was having flashbacks to the previous year’s implosion against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Game Three saw the Pens take a two-goal lead into the final twenty minutes, only to see the never-say-die Islanders come back and force overtime. The Pens prevailed in OT, but heading into Game Four the Islanders were clearly starting to believe that they could emerge victorious (as they had 20 years earlier when they were severe underdogs going up against Mario Lemieux and a young Jaromir Jagr).
Game Four featured incredible checks, awesome goals and a pace that would please almost any hockey fan. The Islanders once again entered the third period with unbelievable momentum and completely dominated the Pens for the final twenty minutes, resulting in a scintillating 6-4 victory that evened the series at two games apiece.
Now, the Islanders have all the momentum, and their work ethic cannot be overlooked. Meanwhile, the Pens are in absolute disarray. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was not good in Game Three and he was horrible in Game Four, resulting in a goalie switch to Vokoun for Game Five.
The question must now be asked: Can David slay Goliath? The Penguins by far are the more talented team, and I don’t think you will find anyone who will argue that point. The Penguins have a wealth of experience in the playoffs, again another point that cannot be argued. There is one problem that I have seen watching the games between the two. The Islanders are outworking the Pens. And because of that one simple fact, this remains a series that is highly winnable for the Isles, despite the fact that the odds were clearly stacked against them when it began.