Islanders vs. Penguins: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.