Penguins vs. Islanders: 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview

For the second time in three years the Penguins and Islanders are meeting in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Back in 2019 the Islanders stunned the Penguins in a four-game sweep.

During the past couple of years these two teams have experienced very different levels of success in the postseason. The Penguins have lost three consecutive playoff series, and including the play-in round of the 2020 bubble are just 3-11 in their past 14 playoff games. The Islanders, meanwhile, have found more postseason success over the past two years than they did in the 20 years that preceded them.

Do the Islanders have another surprising postseason run in them? Or can the Penguins get back to their winning ways in the playoffs and have another Stanley Cup run in them for the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang era?

We will find out starting on Sunday.

PENGUINS VS. ISLANDERS series livestream link

Sunday, May 16: Islanders at Penguins, 12 p.m. ET (NBC)
Tuesday, May 18: Islanders at Penguins, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Thursday, May 20: Penguins at Islanders, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Saturday, May 22: Penguins at Islanders, 3 p.m. ET (NBC)
*Monday, May 24: Islanders at Penguins TBD
*Wednesday, May 26: Penguins at Islanders TBD
*Friday, May 28: Islanders at Penguins TBD

Penguins – Islanders Storylines

The Penguins’ depth is as good as it has been in years

This is not just the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin show in Pittsburgh this season. Thanks in part to the breakout season of Jared McCann, as well as the trade deadline acquisition of Jeff Carter, the Penguins are again capable of rolling four lines that can significantly impact the game offensively.

The most telling sign for that is how well the Penguins have played when their top two superstars are not on the ice.

When neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice this season during 5-on-5 play the Penguins score goals at a nearly identical rate as they do with them on the ice. With Crosby they average 2.75 goals per 60 minutes. With Malkin they average 2.72 goals per 60 minutes. When neither are on the ice they average 2.74 goals per 60 minutes. They also have a plus-18 goal differential when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice, that is by far the best number the Penguins have had over the past 15 years (before this season they were never better than plus-eight in those situations).

Can the Islanders flip the switch again?

Going into the 2020 playoff bubble the Islanders were mired in a terrible slump that had seen them lose seven games in a row and 18 out of 26 games. They were a team trending in the wrong direction and did not seem to have what it was going to take for any kind of a serious run.

Then they ended up going to the Eastern Conference Final after cruising through Florida (Stanley Cup Qualifier) and Washington (First Round) and winning a Game 7 against Philadelphia (Second Round).

This year they go into the playoffs having lost 10 of their previous 16 games and again looking like a team trending in the wrong direction.

Can they flip that switch again when the games really count to make another run?

There are two things working against them this season: The first is that the 2020 playoff bubble came after a four month lay-off when every other team was also off, so it was almost like a new season starting. The second is they do not have one of their top players in captain Anders Lee who remains out for the rest of the season.

Semyon Varlamov‘s status

The Islanders remain confident that Varlamov will be ready to go for the playoffs, but his situation is still something worth monitoring. He exited the Islanders’ regular season finale after two periods and has not returned to practice since. While Ilya Sorokin is the future of the position and a potential star, Varlamov has been the Islanders’ best goalie this season and is the only one with NHL playoff experience.

Evgeni Malkin’s health

Injuries have been a constant issue for the Penguins all season, and Malkin has been at the top of the list.

He returned over the final four games of the regular season but was injured in the Penguins’ regular season finale against Buffalo when he was involved in a center ice collision. The Penguins are insisting that he is okay and will be ready for the series. But it is still something worth watching given his importance and impact. Even though the 2020-21 season has not been one of his best, he can still be a difference-maker offensively and when he is in the lineup the Penguins’ center depth with Crosby, Malkin, Carter, and Teddy Blueger is as good as any other team in the NHL right now.

One big question for Pittsburgh: The goaltending

Goaltending is always the X-factor come playoff time, and that is especially going to be true for the Penguins.

Their forwards look great. Their defense is solid. But the goaltending has been the one question mark all season due to the inexperience of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, as well as some inconsistent play at times. They are also both nursing minor injuries that kept them out of the lineup for the regular season finale. Both are expected to be ready for the start of the series.

Jarry is the starter, but has only played one playoff game in his career. He had a miserable start to the season, rebounded nicely in the middle of the season, but has slumped a little during the stretch run.

With Semyon Varlamov (assuming he is healthy) and Ilya Sorokin at the other end of the ice the goaltending situation could be a huge difference-maker here.

One big question for New York: Can they find enough offense?

This always seems to be the question with this team. It is a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and once you get beyond Mathew Barzal there is not a ton of star power here.

It is not that they are lacking in talent (that is definitely not the case), they just do not have a lot of impact players.

Jordan Eberle has owned the Penguins since joining the Islanders. Oliver Wahlstrom is a promising young talent that has shown flashes of being a top-line performer. Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are all legit top-six players. But it is simply not a team that plays a high-scoring brand of hockey. Yes, defense and goaltending win at this time of year. But you also need to score some goals.

There are only two teams in this year’s playoff field that rank worse than 16th in goals per game (Islanders and Nashville), with the Islanders’ 2.72 goals per game sitting at 20th in the league. They are only one of two playoff teams that average less than 2.80 goals per game. Even more concerning is the fact they are averaging just 2.40 goals per game since April 1 (a span of 20 games), which places them 26th in the league during that stretch.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

The Penguins are very familiar with Barry Trotz coached teams in the playoffs (this is the fifth time in six years they have faced each other in the playoffs) and it is always a tough matchup. The Islanders are perfectly capable of winning this given their defense and goaltending (not to mention the uncertainty of Pittsburgh’s goaltending) but the Penguins’ star power and forward depth is going to be a lot for the Islanders to match in this series.

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

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    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.

    Blackhawks, Athanasiou agree to 2-year, $8.5 million contract

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    CHICAGO — The rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks locked in one of their top scorers, agreeing to a two-year, $8.5 million contract with forward Andreas Athanasiou on Thursday.

    The 28-year-old Athanasiou tied for the team lead with 20 goals and ranked third with 40 points in his first season with Chicago. He matched career highs with four game-winning goals and three power-play goals.

    The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Athanasiou has 125 goals and 111 assists in 459 games with the Detroit Red Wings (2015-20), Edmonton Oilers (2020), Los Angeles Kings (2020-22) and Blackhawks.

    Chicago went 26-49-7 and finished last in the Central Division. The Blackhawks dealt Patrick Kane to the New York Rangers prior to the trade deadline and announced in April they would not re-sign Jonathan Toews, parting with two players who led them to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.