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.

PHT Morning Skate: Metro deadline preview; Should Sharks trade Thornton?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Craig Berube is looking forward to taking part in his first All-Star game. (NHL.com)

• Which coach will be the next one to get the axe? (The Hockey News)

• Here’s a trade deadline preview for the Metropolitan Division. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sportsnet takes a deeper look at the relationship between defensemen in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Find out how Zach Hyman‘s father bankrolled a hockey empire. (Toronto Star)

Cory Schneider might be on his last legs with the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

• Has Ryan Dzingel been a good pick up for the Carolina Hurricanes? (Cardiac Cane)

• The Rangers will probably be sellers at the deadline, but how trade-able are all their players? (Blue Line Station)

Bo Horvat had a really good month of January. (Canucks Army)

• The San Jose Sharks may have to give Joe Thornton his Ray Bourque moment. (Fear the Fin)

• The Ducks need to make some moves if they’re going to improve, but who should they get rid of? (Anaheim Calling)

• B.C. police officer Meghan Agosta will be participating in this weekend’s All-Star Game. (Kelowna Now)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Meet Matiss Kivlenieks; Booming Blackhawks and Blue Jackets

Matiss Kivlenieks Blue Jackets Blackhawks Buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bjorkstrand played a big role in the Blue Jackets’ fifth consecutive win. The Rangers carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, where Bjorkstrand scored both of Columbus’ goals for a 2-1 win. The first one was unassisted, while Bjorkstrand generated the game-winner with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Blue Jackets sit in the East’s first wild-card spot … for the time being.

Bjorkstrand now has 14 goals, putting him in range of last season’s career-high of 23. He finished Sunday at 25 points in 37 games this season.

2. Matiss Kivlenieks, also Columbus Blue Jackets

Don’t blame hockey fans if they say, “OK, now the Blue Jackets are just inventing European goalies.” At least we can latch onto the funny name and prolonged hot streak of Elvis Merzlikins.

Kivlenieks, 23, made a splash during his NHL debut on Sunday. The Latvia native stopped 31 of the 32 shots he faced against the Rangers, nabbing a win. Here are a few facts about Matiss, who might draw a few Henri Matisse references from an extremely select group of hockey fans:

  • Kivlenieks wend undrafted.
  • He didn’t exactly set the AHL on fire so far in 2019-20, going 7-7-2 with a weak .896 save percentage.
  • Kivlenieks didn’t really put up very good stats in the AHL in 2018-19 or 2017-18, either. He fared better during eight ECHL appearances in 2018-19, though, managing a .923 save percentage.
  • The “Joker” mask indicates that there’s a chance he is corny.

Numbers at lower levels guarantee little, but they’re better than nothing. Kivlenieks doesn’t really check that box, but then again, neither did Andrew Hammond. So who knows? Goalies: they’re odd.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks

Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blackhawks have won five in a row. To some degree, that boils down to hot play from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (who reached 1,000 points on Sunday).

Don’t discount Lehner’s role in helping Chicago persist in the playoff bubble, though. Despite a significant drop-off in defensive play around him compared to his Islanders run, Lehner continues to look strong in net. He made 36 saves on Sunday to improve to 15-7-4 with a strong .924 save percentage. That’s really not far off from last season’s outstanding .930 mark, which helped Lehner become a Vezina finalist.

Sunday presented some solid honorable mentions. Sidney Crosby collected two assists during the Penguins’ surprising comeback against the Bruins. (Check out Crosby’s no-look pass.) Lehner’s teammate Alex Nylander collected a goal and an assist, and so on.

Highlights of the Night

Justin Williams did more than just return to the Hurricanes and NHL on Sunday. He also scored the shootout-deciding goal and led a “Storm Surge.” (Read this for more on Williams’ triumphant return.)

Patrick Kane didn’t just reach 1,000 points. He did so in style:

Factoids

  • Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points. Consider this post to be its own factoids section on Kane’s milestone.
  • The Penguins joined the Panthers in generated three comeback wins from down three goals or more, according to NHL PR. (Pittsburgh also pulled that off in 2008-09.) The league notes that only three teams have generated more comeback wins from such deficits, all at four: the Red Wings in 1989-90, and both the 1983-84 Oilers and 1983-84 North Stars.
  • Uh oh. Connor Hellebuyck sports a troubling .897 save percentage over his last 16 games after managing a .933 mark during his first 16, according to TSN’s Statscentre. Hellebuyck grabs my current hypothetical Vezina vote in part because he’s carried such a burden for the Jets. Maybe he’s starting to wear down?

Scores

PIT 4 – BOS 3
CAR 2 – NYI 1 (SO)
CBJ 2 – NYR 1
CHI 5 – WPG 2

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.

Patrick Kane hits 1,000 points, and Blackhawks are red-hot

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People might really start to ask: “Can the Chicago Blackhawks actually make the playoffs?” They won’t have to ask when Patrick Kane will reach 1,000 points.

Kane managed the feat on Sunday. As you can see in the video above, Kane scored point 1,000 on a beautiful secondary assist. He set up Ryan Carpenter, who fed Brandon Saad for that milestone helper. The Blackhawks realized what happened very quickly, mobbing number 88 to celebrate his 1,000th point.

The atmosphere became extra festive as Chicago beat Winnipeg 5-2, giving the Blackhawks five wins in a row.

Kane makes history with point 1,000

The Blackhawks winger wiped a tear or three away after realizing his accomplishment. Kane indeed made some history by reaching 1,000 points in 953 career regular-season games:

  • NHL PR notes that Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points, doing so at age 31 (and 61 days). Jeremy Roenick reached that mark at age 32 (and 13 days).
  • Kane scored his 1,000th point as the second-youngest of any Blackhawk, in general, according to Sportsnet stats. Denis Savard ranks as the only one who hit 1,000 at a younger age, doing so at 29 and 35 days.
  • NHL PR tweeted out a few other tidbits. Kane is the 10th player of U.S. nationality to reach 1,000 points, and ranks among only five who did so in fewer than 1,000 games. Again, Kane got there in game 953.

Impressive stuff. Sunday’s assist extended Kane’s current point streak to 10 games (four goals, 11 assists for 15 points). He’s on a similar hot streak to Jonathan Toews, his partner in crime.

Blackhawks heat up

Speaking of hot streaks, the Blackhawks are indeed gaining steam. This marks their fifth win in a row, and things look good when you zoom out. They’ve also won nine times in their last 12 games (9-3-0) and 11 in their last 15 (11-4-0).

This surge didn’t push Chicago into the top eight. Instead, they now have the same 54 standings points as the ninth-place Jets, although Winnipeg holds a game in hand. Both teams trail an assortment of Pacific Division teams for the two wild-card spots at 57 points, and the Dallas Stars for the third Central spot at 58.

Such gaps sometimes appear closer than they really are — have you met our frenemy, the “charity point?” — but it’s still promising.

Staying in fighting distance of a playoff spot also makes Kane reaching 1,000 feel sweeter, without the bitterness of Chicago’s recent struggles.

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.

Yes, Justin Williams led ‘Storm Surge’ in Hurricanes’ return

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Sports sometimes stick to “Hollywood” scripting, but hockey can be stubborn. In this case, Justin Williams delivered during his return to the Carolina Hurricanes and NHL in general.

Williams closed out what was a pretty exciting, and occasional strange, shootout in Carolina’s favor. It went eight rounds, but Williams scored the shootout-deciding goal as the Hurricanes beat the Islanders 2-1.

Naturally, that wasn’t enough for this “bunch of jerks.” Williams also fittingly took center stage during the “Storm Surge,” giving a salute. You can watch those great moments in the video above this post.

More on a storybook return for Justin Williams

James Reimer made fun of our thirst for a narrative after the game.

“It was all a conspiracy from the beginning. That was the plan,” Reimer joked, via the Hurricanes’ website. “We fooled everyone.”

Really, there’s only one question about this Williams return: what took Rod Brind’Amour so long to send him out in the shootout? Just number eight? Nice sense of the moment, Rod.

(Just kidding — mostly.)

Williams made an impact on the game proper, firing three shots on goal, delivering a hit, and blocking a shot during 13:06 time on ice. Despite being a grizzled veteran at age 38, Williams faced some jitters.

“I was nervous the whole game, to be honest,” Williams said. “It was a playoff game out there. That’s what it felt like that. Teams weren’t giving an inch. There were chances either way, and it could have gone either way,” he said. “I’ve played over 1,200 of these, so I was like, ‘OK, Justin. Get real here. You can do this.’ It was fun. We got what we wanted: two points.”

Well, Brind’Amour believes Williams “fit right in.”

Speaking of people getting right back into the groove, the Hurricanes provided a fun variation on his nickname: on Sunday, Williams became “Mr. Round 8.”

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.