Islanders vs. Penguins: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

11 Comments

If you would have told people at the start of the regular season that not only would the Pittsburgh Penguins be playing the New York Islanders in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that the Islanders would be the team with home-ice advantage, you probably would have been laughed at for having such a ridiculous take.

But that is the situation we have in front of us as the two teams meet starting on Wednesday night.

The Penguins were always expected to be here. They have been one of the league’s most successful teams for more than a decade and extended their postseason streak to 13 consecutive seasons. During that time they have played in five Eastern Conference Finals, four Stanley Cup Finals, and won the Stanley Cup three times, including two of the past three years. The playoffs, in the words of defenseman Kris Letang following their postseason clinching win against the Detroit Red Wings, are the bare minimum expectation for this group.

The Islanders, on the other hand, were never supposed to be here. At least not this season.

After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and then losing John Tavares over the summer, it seemed like the team and its fans were going to be in for a long, difficult season, even with the hiring of a Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz.

But hockey lends itself to quick and sudden turnarounds like this because it is often times the most unpredictable of the major sports, especially if you get the right performances from the right players at the right position.

Trotz helped improve the league’s worst defensive team, and a stunning goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss helped the team return to the playoffs and challenge for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division all season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE

Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 7:30 p.m.: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 12, 2019, 7:30 p.m.: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 14, 2019, Noon: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins | NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 16, 2019, 7:30 p.m.: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
*Thursday, April 18, 2019, TBD: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | TBD
*Saturday, April 20, 2019, TBD: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins | TBD
*Monday, April 22, 2019, TBD: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | TBD

FORWARDS

PITTSBURGH: Everything obviously begins and ends with the big three of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, but it is more than them. Jake Guentzel scored 40 goals this season, the additions of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann helped solidify the team’s depth, and even though Patric Hornqvist has gone quiet in the second half he can be the type of pest that you will hate by the first period of Game 2 in a best-of-seven series.

NEW YORK: This is now Mathew Barzal‘s team, and even though his numbers took a little bit of a step backwards in year two he is still an elite playmaker and an incredibly exciting player. He is a tremendous building block for any organization. The Islanders have a decent core of top-six forwards around him in Anders Lee, Joshua Bailey, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle, but they enter the playoffs as the lowest-scoring team in the field with only 223 goals. Nashville (236) is the only other team that did not score at least 240.

ADVANTAGE: Pittsburgh, by a lot. This is the one area in this series where one team has a pretty decisive advantage. Barzal is great and the Islanders have some pretty good players around him in Lee, Bailey, Eberle, and Nelson, but the Penguins have superstars and elite scorers up and down their roster.

DEFENSE

PITTSBURGH: The key here for Pittsburgh is going to be the health of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. Together, they are as good as it gets in the NHL. In more than 910 minute of 5-on-5 ice-time this season the Penguins outscored teams by a 56-32 margin with them on the ice and controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Neither one has been healthy as of late, though, with Letang missing a significant chunk of the final two months and Dumoulin being sidelined for the final four games. There is a significant drop on the blue line after those two, and there is reason to be concerned with both their second-and third-defense pairings.

NEW YORK: The Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era a year ago and came back this season to give up the fewest goals in the league. There was a lot of improvement in their defensive play, but they were still only average in terms of shot suppression, 16th in high-danger scoring chances against, and 23rd in total scoring chances against. Better … still not great. Goaltending played a big role in that improvement.

ADVANTAGE: It is probably even. The Islanders do not have anybody on their blue line that compares to Letang (or the pairing he and Dumoulin can form), and that is an edge for Pittsburgh. But they also don’t really have any glaring weaknesses, either, and that can be an advantage for New York.

GOALTENDING

PITTSBURGH: Since returning from injury on December 15 Matt Murray has a .930 save percentage, fifth best in the league among all goalies with at least 20 appearances during that stretch, and a 25-9-5 record. He had a terrible start to the season, but once he returned to health he was everything the Penguins needed him to be and at times in the second half a season-saver for them.

NEW YORK: Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss might be the real MVP’s for the Islanders this season as they combined to form the league’s best goaltending duo and helped turn the Islanders from a defensive laughing stock into league’s best goal prevention team.

ADVANTAGE: Islanders, but barely. Overall the Islanders finished the season with the league’s best overall and even-strength save percentage and took home the Jennings Trophy. The Penguins finished fourth and sixth in those two categories respectively. Murray has the playoff pedigree of being a two-time Stanley Cup winner — while being great in both postseasons — but the Lehner-Greiss duo has been just a little bit better this season. 

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will Phil Kessel be a difference-maker for Pittsburgh?

When the Penguins were winning the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 Phil Kessel was one of the driving forces behind that success. He has also been one of the best postseason performers of his era, but slumped badly in the postseason a year ago. His 2018-19 season has also been a bizarre one to watch unfold because his overall production has been as good as it has ever been, but he has still found himself in the crosshairs for criticism because he hasn’t always looked good and his even-strength goal-scoring dried up so much. But when he gets rolling he can be one of the best wingers in hockey and he showed signs of getting back to that level down the stretch.

 How can the Islanders match up with the Penguins’ talent at forward?

The Islanders were a tremendous success story this year over 82 games, but when it comes to a best-of-seven series matchups are a huge factor. The big concern here for the Islander is going to be down the middle as they try to match up with the trio of Crosby, Malkin, and Bjugstad. The Penguins definitely have the advantage with the former two, and Bjugstad is no slouch as a third-line center. Valterri Filpulla and Casey Cizikas have had outstanding years compared to the preseason expectations for them, but they are going to have their hands full in this series.

PREDICTION

PENGUINS IN 6. This is going to be a tight, evenly played series that could easily go the distance. The Islanders’ goaltending is going to give them a chance every night, but the Penguins might have just a little too much talent at the top of the lineup for the Islanders to match up with.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Roundtable: Best NHL teams to not win Stanley Cup

Leave a comment

Which NHL franchise (team or one from a specific season) over the last 25 years are you most disappointed did not win a Stanley Cup and why?

JOEY: I know they made it to a Stanley Cup Final in 2016, but the fact that the Sharks have never hoisted the Stanley Cup is pretty disappointing. The other California teams (Anaheim and Los Angeles) have each won at least one, but the Sharks just couldn’t get over the hump.

How can you not feel sorry for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and company? Those guys played at a high level for so long and it’s unfortunate that they could never win it all.

Since the start of the 2000-01 season, this is where the Sharks have finished in the Pacific Division standings: first, fifth, first, second, second, first, first, first, first, second, third, second, fifth, third, third, third and second. That’s a lot of good seasons. To have only one Stanley Cup Final appearance to show for it is just brutal.

Even the Vegas Golden Knights, who have turned into a bitter rival for the Sharks, have made it to one Stanley Cup Final and that was in their first year of existence.

What’s even more frustrating for San Jose, is that based on what we’ve seen from them in 2019-20, it looks like their window to win is pretty much closed. Can general manager Doug Wilson turn things around quickly? Maybe. But they don’t even have their own first-round pick this year.

There’s been some great Sharks teams over the last 25 years, but they’d trade all that regular-season success for a single Stanley Cup.

SEAN: I agree with Joey. You can count on two hands how many in the last 15 years that the Sharks have been my preseason Cup winner pick. But I’m going to go in a different direction. The 2010-11 Canucks were a team that conquered demons along the way to reaching Game 7 of the Cup Final.

That Canucks roster was a total package. There were some likable characters (Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Roberto Luongo) and others who played the heel role very well (Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Max Lapierre, Raffi Torres). There was also Kevin Bieksa, who could probably find a place in both groups.

Years of playoff disappointment were carried like baggage heading into the 2010-11 season. After back-to-back Round 2 playoff exits at the hands of the Blackhawks, the Canucks were again Cup contenders, and needed to finally finish the job. They did their part initially, becoming the first team that season to clinch a playoff spot and picking up the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

Every Stanley Cup championship DVD has those flashpoint moments on the road to a title. The Canucks had that. From their regular season success to Burrows “slaying the dragon” with his overtime series clincher against Chicago in Round 1 to Bieksa ending the Western Conference Final against the Sharks in double OT to Vancouver winning the first two games of the Cup Final against the Bruins. It appeared as if the stars had finally aligned.

We know the rest of the story, but that team was both incredibly fun to watch with the talent on it and so easy to root against given the villains employed on the roster. All they needed was just one win in Boston to change history.

JAMES: Joey beat me to the Sharks, but honestly, I’m glad. In having to dig deeper, it conjured some great/tragic hockey memories and interesting thoughts.

For one: the last two Stanley Cup-winners emptied out metaphorical tonnage of angst. The Blues have been tormented by “almost” basically from day one, when they were pulverized in three straight Stanley Cup Final series (1967-68 through 1969-70) without winning a single game against the Canadiens or Bruins. There’d be ample angst if they didn’t win in 2019, and the same can be said for the Capitals. It’s difficult to cringe too hard at the Boudreau-era Capitals falling just short when Alex Ovechkin won it all, anyway.

My thoughts drift, then, to quite a few Canadian teams that rode high.

It’s tempting to go with the Peak Sedin Canucks, in and around that near-win in 2011; after all, while I didn’t grow up a Canucks fan, many were fooled into believing so because of my handle.

But, honestly, the team that might bum me out the most in recent years is the really, really good Senators teams that fell short of a Stanley Cup. (No, I’m not talking about the group that was within an overtime Game 7 OT goal of being willed to a SCF by Erik Karlsson and a few others.)

The 2005-06 Senators rank among the more galling “What if?” teams for me.

During the regular season, that Senators team scored more goals than anyone else (314) and allowed the third-fewest (211). Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson both enjoyed 103-point seasons, and Jason Spezza (90) probably would have hit 100+ if he played more than 68 games. This was a team that also featured Zdeno Chara, a Wade Redden effective enough to convince the Senators to choose Redden over Chara, and other talented players like Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette, and Mike Fisher.

The biggest “What if?” there revolves around Dominik Hasek getting injured during the 2006 Winter Olympics, a groin issue that kept him out of the ensuing postseason. Even at 41, Hasek was dominant, posting a .925 save percentage. Ray Emery couldn’t get it done, and the Senators were bounced in the second round.

While the 2006-07 Senators were the rendition that actually made it to the SCF, they no longer had Chara or Hasek on their roster.

Instead of a possible Stanley Cup victory, the memorable images of those peak Alfredsson-era Senators teams were ugly ones. Marian Hossa lying, dejected on the ice after Jeff Friesen beat Patrick Lalime and the Devils won a Game 7 in 2003. Alfredsson snapping at shooting a puck at Scott Niedermayer. And then plenty of unceremonious exits.

For more casual hockey fans, that Senators’ surge will probably be all but forgotten, but it’s really stunning just how talented that team was.

(Side note on almost-Canadian champs: I’ll likely go to my grave believing that Martin Gelinas scored that goal for the Flames.)

ADAM: I want to see great players get their championship, especially when it is the one thing that their otherwise great resume is lacking. The Sedins are obviously in that discussion, as are those great Sharks teams with Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski.

I will add another name to that list: Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Especially that 2013-14 team that actually made it to the Stanley Cup Final only to lose to the Kings. I know they lost that series in five games but I still feel like it was a lot closer than that because they literally lost three games in overtime. Lundqvist was outstanding in that entire postseason — and that series — and it would have been the capper on his career.

On one hand, I feel like Lundqvist is absolutely respected for the goalie that he has been. But it still seems like there is a “yeah, but…” that always follows him around because he doesn’t have that championship that will keep him from being remembered as one of the all-time greats at the position. He has been a great goalie, a sensational playoff goal, and was always taking the Rangers to levels that they probably shouldn’t have been at.

So which team am I disappointed didn’t win? At least one team with Henrik Lundqvist on it.

SCOTT: The 2018-19 Lightning were an elite team that not only didn’t reach the Cup Final, they didn’t even win a game in the postseason.

The Blue Jackets won their first playoff series as a franchise in stunning fashion as they won four straight against a big Cup favorite.

The Lightning were a victim of their own regular-season success. With 14 games remaining in the regular season, Tampa Bay secured a playoff spot and had little to play for the rest of the way.

“In the end, it’s just we just couldn’t find our game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the disappointing finish. “That was it. It had been with us all year, and for six days in April we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was a [heck] of a regular season.”

The Lightning won 62 games that season and finished the regular season with 128 points. The Bruins, who ended up representing the Eastern Conference in the 2019 Cup Final, finished with 107 points.

“You have a historic regular season doing what we did and have basically a historic playoff in defeat,” Jon Cooper said.

Tampa will always be one of the most successful teams to not win the ultimate prize.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Long-term outlook for Edmonton Oilers: Free agents, prospects, and more

Leave a comment

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Edmonton Oilers.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Is there an NHL team that boasts a better duo than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? What if you weigh the future, being that McDavid is 23 and Draisaitl is 24?

Of course, the Oilers pay for the luxury of a duo that carries them to competence.

Now, I’d argue that McDavid + Draisaitl is a combo worth $21M (honestly, McDavid’s probably worth nearly that much alone). Even so, the combo eats up about 25 percent of this season’s $81.5M cap ceiling. Thanks to the COVID-19 pause, it will be a chore to maintain that level, let alone bump it to $82M or higher.

When you begin paying your stars like actual stars, every mistake cuts that much deeper.

About $14.2M of the Oilers’ space will be eaten up by James Neal, retaining some of Milan Lucic‘s salary, Zack Kassian‘s extension, and the questionable Mikko Koskinen extension. Add in dead money like the Andrej Sekera buyout and the margin of error gets even smaller.

Could that force the Oilers to wave goodbye to, say, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins after 2020-21? Rather than landing a big fish in free agency, will Edmonton be stuck searching the bargain bin year after year?

There’s at least an opening to put together a more efficient defense.

Oscar Klefbom‘s had some stumbles, but he’s worthwhile as either a key defenseman or a trade chip at a reasonable $4.167M through 2022-23. Darnell Nurse received a bridge contract to keep him in the fold. Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard, and/or Philp Broberg could help out with cheap deals through at least 2021-22.

If the Oilers fail to trade them away before their contracts run out, the $8M+ of Kris Russell and Adam Larsson goes off the books after 2020-21.

So, as time goes on, the Oilers could have a decent mix of value and youthfulness on defense. Of course, that’s if Holland makes the right moves, rather than believing too much in the likes of Mike Green.

Holland must answer: who’s going to help McDavid and Draisaitl? Will Andreas Athanasiou be part of the core? Oh yeah, and what about Jesse Puljujarvi?

Long-term needs for Oilers

Even in the optimistic situation where Koskinen persists as a 1A/1B platoon option, the Oilers still need answers in net. Mike Smith hasn’t been effective, and the pending UFA is 38. Koskinen is no spring chicken at 31.

The Oilers could enjoy a less clunky defense in the near future, but if Broberg, Nurse, and Bouchard have limited ceilings, Edmonton would still need a blue-chipper. Maybe two.

And it’s abundantly clear that the Oilers struggle to find help beyond McDavid and Draisaitl.

If there’s any area where Ken Holland can help the organization learn from sins of the past, it’s draft and development. Can they find talent beyond those high first-rounders, as the Oilers so rarely did before? Can they avoid botching development for the closest answers to the next Puljujarvi or Nail Yakupov?

Long-term strengths for Oilers

Because, the thing is, Edmonton still lucked into many key building blocks for a championship foundation.

If everything else is equal, McDavid + Draisaitl are topping most (if not all) other duos. RNH, Kailer Yamamoto, and other younger forwards can help out, just generally not enough.

And, again, help might be on its way on defense.

Through all this turmoil, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman still ranked the Oilers’ under-23 core group as the top one in the NHL back in September (sub required).

Chiarelli and even Holland dug quite a few holes for Edmonton with poor asset management, in trades and otherwise. Yet there’s still a lot to work with, and Holland could very well build a contender if he hits the right buttons.

Really, that’s what’s been frustrating about the McDavid era: you almost need to be creative to find ways to make it all not work. It’s frustrating that Taylor Hall hasn’t been there as McDavid and Draisaitl grew, but that mistake is in the past.

The Oilers can take that next step. They simply made the journey bumpier thanks to taking many wrong turns.

MORE ON THE OILERS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hurricanes plan to to ‘make whole’ furloughed full-time employees

Leave a comment

The Carolina Hurricanes are putting more than half of full-time staff on furlough through June 7 while taking steps they said would ensure affected employees don’t lose income amid the coronavirus pandemic that has led to the suspension of the NHL season.

The team announced the plan Friday with the team and PNC Arena having shut down operations last month to ensure social-distancing practices.

The team says the furlough applies to about 55% of full-time employees, who would be directed to access unemployment benefits through the government’s $2.2 trillion economic rescue package.

Furloughed employees ineligible to collect full base salaries through unemployment would receive a bonus from the organization when the furlough ends “to be made whole.”

Additionally, furloughed employees will keep healthcare benefits, with the team covering premium payments during that time.

In a statement, team president and general manager Don Waddell says the organization “remains committed to taking care of our staff as well as possible given these unprecedented circumstances.” Waddell said the plan “protects our employees from financial hardship while also mitigating the losses suffered by the company during this shutdown.”

Edmonton Oilers: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Leave a comment

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Edmonton Oilers.

We didn’t see Draisaitl’s peak in 2018-19

Last season, Leon Draisaitl adjusted what we believed to be his ceiling. It was already clear that he was a gem for Edmonton before, but a 50-goal, 105-point season? That was more than many projected.

And it wasn’t even the most he’s capable of. Draisaitl put himself in the Maurice Richard Trophy race with 43 goals in 2019-20, while he remarkably reached 110 points despite the season hitting that mid-March pause.

If you translate 110 points in 71 games to an 82-game season, Draisaitl would’ve reached 127-128.

The larger Hart Trophy debate can be a little thorny.

And it’s true that Draisaitl’s been living large on puck luck for two seasons now. He generated a 21.6 shooting percentage in 2018-19 and a 19.7 percent rate this season, while enjoying high on-ice shooting percentages too (12.4 in 2018-19, 14.4 in 2019-20, vs. 10.6 for his career). But it seems clear that he’s going to be a nightmare for defenses to deal with, whether he lines up with Connor McDavid or drives his own trio.

(Interestingly, evidence points to Edmonton being better off keeping their two mega-powers together.)

The Oilers dominating on special teams definitely ranks among surprises

With McDavid and Draisaitl on the roster, it’s not that surprising to see a dominant Oilers power play.

Granted, leading the league in PPG (59) with far and away the most efficient unit (29.5 percent, Boston second at 25.2) was a surprise. (After all, the Oilers managed a 21.17 rate in 2018-19, and was putrid at 14.76 at 2017-18.)

But the Oilers being so stingy on the penalty kill ended up being one of their biggest surprises. Edmonton tied with Columbus for the least power-play goals allowed (31) this season, while the Oilers’ 84.4 percent kill rate was second-best in the NHL. (For all that went wrong for the Sharks, theirs was the best at 85.7.)

Combining special teams percentages only tells you so much, but it’s a quick way to illustrate just how exemplary Edmonton’s units were. If you add that PP% (29.5) to that PK% (84.4), you get 113.9. The Bruins (109.4) and to a lesser extent Hurricanes (106.3) were the only other teams really in the Oilers’ ballpark.

McDavid + Draisaitl with semi-competent supporting cast members figures to be a formula for a strong power play most seasons. Maybe not “flirting with 30 percent” strong, but strong nonetheless.

Repeating such penalty kill success seems unlikely, however. Maybe Dave Tippett can manufacture at least a decent unit most seasons, though?

Oilers struggle enough at even strength to nearly negate positive surprises

One knock on Draisaitl’s Hart argument is that the Oilers give up almost as much as they create with him on the ice. The high-event back-and-forth is illustrated graphically by Draisaitl’s RAPM chart at Evolving Hockey:

Oilers surprises Draisaitl give and take

Even that vaunted power play drives home the risk-reward point. The Oilers allowed 10 shorthanded goals this season, tied for third-most in the NHL.

Despite Draisaitl enjoying an incredible season, McDavid being McDavid aside from an injury absence, and possibly unsustainable special teams dominance, the Oilers only managed a modest +8 goal differential in 2019-20.

What happens if Draisaitl cools off a bit, and they stop getting so many saves on the PK?

It’s foolish to fully dismiss any team with McDavid and Draisaitl on hand, particularly since the Oilers boast a few other helpful factors (including intriguing defensive prospects Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg). Still, those two carry such a burden, and the Oilers have enjoyed enough luck in certain areas, that one can’t help but wonder if disappointments will be more abundant than positive surprises in the near future.

MORE ON THE OILERS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.