If you’re a Penguins fan, it probably feels like your team has faced the New York Islanders far too often in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In reality, though, this is just the sixth meeting between the two clubs. It’s just that four of the previous five have been brutal for Pittsburgh.
In their first meeting in 1975, the Penguins stormed out to a 3-0 series lead – then blew the series in stunning fashion, scoring just four goals in the final four games. Pittsburgh put up a much more respectable showing in 1982, taking the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Isles to a decisive fifth game and nearly upsetting them before losing in overtime.
Modern-era Penguins fans likely recall the last three meetings best, though. Those included the 1993 second round where David Volek knocked the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Penguins out of the playoffs in overtime, the 2013 first-round series the Penguins finally won on an overtime goal from the unlikely stick of defenseman Brooks Orpik, and the 2019 first-round Islanders sweep that saw Pittsburgh score a total of three goals in the final three games.
This year, the Penguins have reason for optimism. They go into the playoffs riding a 26-8-2 high since the beginning of March, while the Islanders limped down the stretch, going 3-4-3 in their last 10.
The Islanders still led the MassMutual East Division for much of the season, though. And they did it the way the Penguins have found success – by buying into a team-first, defense-first concept.
The Penguins saw it firsthand in 2019, and they remember the lessons.
“They put you in position to force the play, and that’s where they can counter and be good against you,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “[This year] we’ve been able to minimize turnovers and put pucks deeper and try to bring in every forecheck, trying to play deep in their zone like they did. That’s the key.
“If you try to be fancy through the neutral zone or defensive zone, they have guys that have relentless pursuit and really good sticks, they have a really good posture with five guys defending, so you don’t want to give them any chance to counter.”
The matchup pits the Penguins’ No. 4 power play (a 23.7% conversion rate) against the Islanders’ No. 6 penalty kill (83.7%). It sees New York goalie Semyon Varlamov, who’s played in 46 career playoff games, square off against Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry, who’s played one.
“Obviously [the games are] a lot more ramped up and there’s a lot more atmosphere in the building, but I think for me it’s just playing the same game as if it were game 37,” Jarry said. “I just want to try to get in front of as many pucks as I can, limit rebounds and do what I can.”
The Penguins were the NHL’s second highest-scoring team, scoring 193 goals for an average of 3.45 per game, while the Islanders were the second stingiest, allowing just 125 goals against for an average of 2.23 per game. While the Penguins’ depth up front may give them an edge, the Islanders’ defensive focus sometimes overshadows their own very talented group of forwards, like Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier.
“I think when the media or the public talk about the Islanders, it’s always about the structure and the defense, but they have some really talented players,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “Barzal is a game-breaking forward, but it doesn’t stop with him. They’ve got a number of players that have had good years, that are good two-way players. Their team game is strong defensively, but they have a lot of offense throughout their lineup that can hurt you.”
It’s also yet another chess match against Sullivan and Barry Trotz, who meet for the fifth time since 2016, three of those when Trotz was with the Washington Capitals.
“The result of this series is going to be who’s going to do his game plan and respect his structure the best,” Letang said. “You don’t want to go off grid and go on your own page when things go wrong. I think we have to focus on our own thing; That’s what we tried to do all year and get better at it all season.”
“For me, it’s about the players,” Sullivan said. “These are the guys that go on the ice and get the job done. We know we’re up against a tough opponent; we’ve got a lot of respect for these guys. They’ve had a lot of success playing their game a certain way. We’ve had some success playing our game a certain way. So we’re going to do our best to dictate the terms out there and get to our game as early and as often as we can.”
The Penguins should be a motivated team, with their deepest roster in several seasons giving them what could be their best chance to win another Stanley Cup during the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Letang era.
“Looking at our team this year, the season we had with the injuries and guys stepping up and bringing a different level to their game, the addition of [Jeff Carter], sometimes you have that feeling inside you like this year is a good year, you have a good team,” Letang said. “Do we think about our age and the fact it’s one more chance? Yes, of course. But I think as a hockey player, every time you enter that dance for the playoffs, it’s a chance and you might not see another one, so you have to treat it like it’s the last one.”
“When you get into the playoffs, the urgency needs to be through the roof,” said Carter, himself a two-time Stanley Cup Champion whose arrival at the trade deadline helped the Penguins establish four solid forward lines. “You can get in and screw around for a couple games and, next thing you know, your season’s over. Every game the urgency needs to be up there.
“It’s exciting for all the guys here; they battled hard all year to get a good seed in the playoffs and have some home ice, so I think we’re just looking forward to getting it going. It’s been a long week.”