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.

NHL on NBCSN: Year after elevating Berube, Blues’ success continues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

One year ago Tuesday, the St. Louis Blues fell to the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 and dropped to 7-9-3 on the season. The defeat was their fourth in five games and the Blues’ offense was blanked for a third time in four games. 

Enough was enough for Doug Armstrong, who later that evening fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. Originally, the Blues general manager planned to cast a wide net in his search for a new head coach. He said he planned to have coaches from the European, junior and college ranks, along with names with NHL experience, like the recently fired Joel Quenneville.

It took some time, but it was clear that Yeo’s full-time replacement was already under contract with the organization, as we all eventually found out.

“He answered the bell,” Armstrong said last spring.

One year later, the Blues finally have a Stanley Cup title and the Blues are lacking any sort of championship hangover as they sit atop the Central Division with a 12-4-5 record and tied for the most points in the Western Conference with 29. They’ve maintained a strong start even after losing Vladimir Tarasenko for likely the rest of the regular season last month. In the 11 games since the winger underwent shoulder surgery St. Louis has a 7-2-2 record.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Jordan Binnington, who’s recall last January helped spark the Blues’ second half run, had a goal this season to prove the doubters wrong. His five-month hot streak has continued into this season with his .923 even strength save percentage in the top 10 among all NHL goaltenders with at least 10 starts.

The Blues haven’t been scoring the lights out since Tarasenko exited the lineup, as they’ve averaged 2.72 goals per game. In fact, their 35 even strength goals are the third-fewest in the NHL this season. They done it with a strong power play (25%) and another balanced approached — much last season. Through 21 games, only Brayden Schenn (11) has hit double digits in goals scored and 18 different players have lit the lamp.

Berube’s message has stayed with the Blues and after a long search to find their identity, success has followed. When he took the job, he saw a team lacking in confidence. It was a good team he was inheriting, but there was one thing missing.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said during the Stanley Cup Final in June. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

Players know where they stand under Berube, and that plays a huge role in earning their trust. That attribute is what turned an interim gig into a championship run and a full-time opportunity.

“He’s an honest guy,” Armstrong told Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch. “He speaks from the heart. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. I think he’s accountable to himself and accountable to the team as a whole. And I think he requires each individual to be accountable to the team as a whole also.”

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage of NHL Live alongside alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Babcock betting on himself; impact of Fabbri trade

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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.

• Mike Babcock on the pressures he’s currently facing with the Maple Leafs struggling: “I’m going to do (the job) as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’m going to continue to bet on him.” [Toronto Star]

• It’s not been a fun season if you’re employed as a Maple Leafs backup goaltender. [One Puck Short]

• Brady and Matthew Tkachuk have turned into phenomenal NHLers. [TSN]

• It’s been a pretty good first 20 games for the Panthers under Joel Quenneville. [Miami Herald]

• ‘Scrappy’ Jets gaining an identity at season’s quarter-mark. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Morgan Frost, one of the Flyers’ top prospects, has been recalled. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• How Barry Trotz went from 50/50 sales to winning the Stanley Cup. [Sportsnet]

• What’s bugging the Predators of late? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Bruins are eager to see Charlie McAvoy reached another level. [Boston Herald]

• Fun story from the NCAA over the weekend: Nine minutes before pregame warmups started, North Dakota’s Josh Rieger was eating a pound of buffalo wings. He got the call, rushed to the rink and scored his first goal. [Grand Forks Herald]

• How Robby Fabbri trade impacts Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou. [Detroit Free Press]

• Five women who should be inducted next into the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Sporting News]

• Kris Versteeg asked to be released from his contract with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes are benefitting from the addition of assistant coach Phil Housley. [NHL.com]

• Looking at the best and worst in the history of Flyers jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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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.

Capitals’ Hathaway faces potential suspension for spitting

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Getting thrown out of the game probably won’t be the end of Garnet Hathaway’s punishment for spitting on an opponent.

The Washington Capitals forward could be suspended, or at the very least fined, for spitting on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson toward the end of a brawl Monday night. Officials gave Hathaway a match penalty that carries with it an ejection and an automatic suspension pending review by the NHL office.

Asked after the Capitals’ 5-2 victory if he expected further discipline, Hathaway said, “I think time will tell with that.” He added he regretted spitting on Gudbranson.

The Ducks were angry at Hathaway for what they called disrespectful behavior but didn’t want to speculate what might happen next. They’re off to the next stop on their road trip, and the Capitals don’t know if they’ll have Hathaway for their next game Wednesday at the New York Rangers.

Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins called it above his pay grade. Gudbranson said: “I have no idea. I’ll trust the league with that.”

Boston Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand was warned during the playoffs for licking opponents but was not suspended. There’s little precedent for Hathaway’s actions, other than the part of the rulebook that deems it worthy of an ejection and the league’s process of having its hockey operations department review each match penalty.

Washington is already up against the salary cap with the minimum 12 forwards and six defensemen healthy. If Hathaway is suspended, it could wreak havoc on the Capitals’ roster.

“It seems like it’s been a constant equation for us the last little while here,” coach Todd Reirden said. “(We’ll) see where we’re at in terms of injured players and potential situation here with whatever the league does. It’s out of my hands now.”

MORE: Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson

Women’s legend Wickenheiser among new hockey Hall of Famers

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TORONTO (AP) — Hayley Wickenheiser hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect.

The Canadian women’s hockey star – a quadruple Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion – retired in January 2017 and enrolled in medical school.

As if there wasn’t enough on her plate already, she then took on the role as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs in August 2018.

Wickenheiser got a chance to look back at her standout playing career on Monday night.

The 41-year-old was among six inductees enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining three-time Stanley Cup winner Guy Carbonneau, offensive blue-line dynamo Sergei Zubov and Czech great Vaclav Nedomansky in the players’ category.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and longtime Boston College coach Jerry York went into the hall as builders.

”It was not a common thing as a little girl to want to play hockey in the small town where I came from,” Wickenheiser said during her speech. ”But my mom and dad believed that a girl could do anything that a boy could.”

Wickenheiser recounted sleeping in a closet for a week just so she could attend an all-boys hockey camp.

”I wanted to play the game so bad, I didn’t care what I had to endure,” she said.

She went on to play for boys’ teams in Calgary – there weren’t any for girls, and she’d tuck her hair under her helmet to avoid standing out – but still had to fight.

”I was taking the spot of a boy, and people didn’t really like that too much,” Wickenheiser said. ”I actually developed an ulcer. I wasn’t nervous to get hit or to go on the ice. That’s actually where I felt good. It was when I had to come to the rink and change in the bathroom and then walk through the lobby of all the parents – the comments and the harassment I would often hear.

”Those things gave me thick skin and resilience.”

She went onto have a stellar 23-year career with Canada and played professionally in Europe, blazing a trail at a time when the women’s game was desperately looking for traction.

Wickenheiser, who has medical school exams Wednesday, put up 379 points in 276 games to help secure four straight Olympic golds (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014) as well as those seven world titles.

Named the MVP of both the 2002 and 2006 Olympic tournaments, the former center is the seventh woman to be inducted into the hall.

”The first Olympics that we lost (in 1998) was not a fun one, but the four after that were some of the best experiences of my life,” said Wickenheiser, who was Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Games. ”One of the greatest honors I’ve ever had was to put on that Canadian jersey.”

The 59-year-old Carbonneau won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens, and again in 1999 with the Dallas Stars.

He was an attacking force in junior hockey, but transitioned to the other side of the puck in the NHL, becoming one of the game’s premiere shutdown centers on the way to winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 1988, 1989 and 1992.

Carbonneau, who retired in 2000 and waited 16 years before getting inducted in the hall, finished with 663 points in 1,318 regular-season games.

”I was dreaming about playing in the NHL, dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, dreaming of scoring a goal in the playoffs,” said Carbonneau, who had 93 playoff points. ”But being inducted in the Hall of Fame? Never in my wildest dreams.”

A smooth-skating defenseman with terrific vision, Zubov played 12 of his 16 NHL seasons with Dallas, registering 771 points in 1,068 regular-season games. The 49-year-old from Moscow added 117 points in the post-season, helping the New York Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup in 1994 before doing it again with the Stars in 1999.

Zubov, who also won Olympic gold in 1992 with the Unified Team after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said he didn’t want to go to Dallas after getting dealt in 1996.

”Get me traded,” he recounted telling his agent. ”But (Stars general manager) Bob Gainey did his homework and sent the most beautiful bouquet of flowers to my wife.

”She said, ‘Maybe we should give it a try.”’

An NHL goalie from 1970 to 1983, Rutherford was named GM of the Hartford Whalers in 1994. He stuck with the franchise when it moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes, and built the roster that won the organization’s only Cup in 2006.

The 70-year-old took on the same role with the Penguins in 2014 and helped guide Pittsburgh to titles in 2016 and 2017, making him the only GM to win Cups with two different teams since the league expanded in 1967.

”Don’t let anyone tell you (that) you can’t do something, because that was the story of my career,” Rutherford said. ”And the more they told me I couldn’t do things, the more it turned out that I did.”

The 75-year-old Nedomansky starred for 12 years in his native Czechoslovakia before becoming the first athlete from an Eastern European communist country to defect to North America to pursue a professional hockey career in 1974.

He played parts of three seasons in the World Hockey Association before jumping to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings as a 33-year-old rookie.

”It was difficult, complicated, stressful,” Nedomansky said of his decision to defect. ”I’m so happy that I’m here.”

The 74-year-old York, who’s in his 48th season behind the bench, owns five NCAA titles, including four with the Eagles, and has the most wins in U.S. college history.

”I just love coaching,” York said. ”I love the people we coach.”

But the night really was about Wickenheiser, who concluded by addressing her 5- and 6-year-old nieces in the audience.

”If they decide to play hockey, they can walk into a hockey rink anywhere in Canada with a hockey bag and a hockey stick over their shoulder, and nobody’s going to look twice,” she said. ”They don’t have to cut their hair short and run into the bathroom and try to look like a boy like I had to do to blend in. The road is just a little bit easier. I want to thank everyone that made that road easier for me and is continuing to pave the way.

”The game is truly for everyone.”