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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.