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 players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing things as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blues seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better goaltending?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, it’s pretty clear that the goaltenders on both sides are the front runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Both Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington have been terrific in the postseason, so don’t be surprised if goals are hard to come by for the Bruins and Blues.

But as good as both goalies have been, one of the two has to have an advantage. So let’s take a deeper look.

Boston Bruins: 

It’s nice to see Rask have so much success in the playoffs because the fans in Boston haven’t been easy on him this season or throughout his career. Yes, following Tim Thomas was never going to be easy, but Rask hasn’t been as bad as a lot of Bruins fans make him out to be. Whenever the Bruins have needed him most, he usually comes through. Now, he hasn’t delivered a Stanley Cup title but that’s not all on the goalie. And during this year’s playoffs, he’s been amazing.

In Game 6 against Toronto, he was outstanding. His team was facing elimination on the road and he managed to turn in such a strong performance to shut the Leafs down. That really set the tone for their Game 7 victory on home ice. After they went down 2-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, Rask became virtually unbeatable. He clearly got into the Blue Jackets shooters’ heads and the Columbus power play which was so good in the first round against Tampa, went ice cold because they couldn’t figure out how to beat Rask.

Since Game 5 of the first-round series against the Leafs, Rask has held the opposition to two goals or fewer in 11 of 13 games. That’s incredible. So if Boston scores two or three goals, they pretty much win 85 percent of the time.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 32-year-old has a 12-5 record with a 1.84 goals-against-average and a .942 save percentage during the playoffs. He won’t be easy to beat for the Blues.

And something else we have to consider is goaltending depth. If something were to happen to Rask, the Bruins can turn to Jaroslav Halak, who had a terrific season and who’s gone on a long playoff run of his own. A one-two punch of Rask and Halak probably can’t be beat.

St. Louis Blues:

It’s amazing to think that Binnington spent a portion of last season with the Bruins’ farm team in Providence. It’s also incredible to think that he wasn’t even in the NHL at the start of this season. But Binnington is one of the major reasons why the Blues were able to go from last place on Jan. 2 to the Stanley Cup Final almost five months later.

The Blues have had terrific teams before, but goaltending has always been an issue for them. Roman Turek, Chris Osgood, Jake Allen and many others have all failed in an attempt to get the Blues their first championship. Binnington is a different story. Whether they win this series or not, general manager Doug Armstrong can confidently say that he’s finally found a goaltender that’s capable of carrying his team on long playoff runs. Yes, it’s a really small sample size, but it’s tough to imagine Binnington completely falling on his face in this series or even next season.

After the controversial ending to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final against San Jose, Binnington held the Sharks to two goals over the final three games of the series. That’s impressive against any team but even more so against a team with that kind of firepower.

The 25-year-old has 12-7-0 record with a 2.36 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage this postseason. The Bruins may just be the biggest challenge he’s faced, but he’s already knocked out a great Jets team, a hungry Stars team and a talented Sharks team.

Again, for the purpose of this article, we have to check out the depth at the Blues’ disposal. Jake Allen has been a starter in the NHL, but he always seems to fall apart at the wrong time. In my mind, it’s impossible to give Allen the advantage over Halak.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

If both starting goalies were unavailable for this series, you’d have to give the edge to Boston. But if we put that aside, I still think Rask has to have a slight edge on Binnington. He’s been more dominant and he has the advantage of having Stanley Cup Final experience. There isn’t a big gap between the two players right now, but it’s impossible to overlook what Rask has done.

What do you think?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.