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.

The Buzzer: Eberle rallies Islanders, DeBrincat scores 40th, another McDavid highlight

AP

Three Stars

1. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders. It has not been Jordan Eberle’s best season, but wow did he come through in a big way for the New York Islanders on Thursday night. He scored two goals in the third period to help the Islanders storm back for a 5-4 win against the Winnipeg Jets. Eberle’s second goal, with less than two minutes to play in regulation, came just 33 seconds after Casey Cizikas tied the game. He is now up to 17 goals and 34 total points on the season as the Islanders took a significant step to securing their first playoff appearance since the 2015-16 season. Read more about tonight’s game here.

2. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Columbus Blue Jackets looked awful in the first period on Thursday night in what was perhaps the biggest game of their season. Then they rebounded over the next 40 minutes to storm back for a massive 6-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens, thanks in part to a pair of goals from Oliver Bjorkstrand. He is now up to 19 goals on the season and helped the Blue Jackets get back into a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Read more about tonight’s game here.

3. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks. In hindsight it is absolutely insane that Alex DeBrincat had to wait until the second-round to get selected in his draft year. He is on his way toward stardom in the NHL and reached the 40-goal mark on Thursday night in the Blackhawks’ 5-4 win over the San Jose Sharks with a pair of goals. He is now the youngest player in Blackhawks history to score 40 goals in a season, eclipsing the mark that was previously set by Steve Larmer. He and Patrick Kane also became just the second set of American-born teammates to score 40 goals in the same season, joining Joe Mullen and Kevin Stevens who did it as members of the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Other notable games and performances from Thursday 

  • The San Jose Sharks’ late season woes continued on Thursday night with their seventh loss in a row, this time against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Sharks fell behind 3-0, eventually rallied to tie the game 4-4, and then ended up losing on a late Chris Kunitz goal. They are six points behind the Calgary Flames for first place in the Pacific Division, a deficit that seems almost insurmountable this late in the season.
  • The Washington Capitals are back in the playoffs and will continue their defense of the Stanley Cup. They were 3-2 winners over the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, spoiling the Hurricanes’ plans for their final Storm Surge celebration of the season. Read more about tonight’s game here.
  • The Dallas Stars overcame a two-goal deficit against the Edmonton Oilers and picked up a 3-2 shootout win. Alexander Radulov scored another goal, Miro Heiskanen continued his incredible rookie season with the equalizer, and Jamie Benn scored the deciding goal in the shootout.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau scored two goals for the Florida Panthers in a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. He has been one of their bright spots this season.
  • Dylan Larkin scored two goals for the Detroit Red Wings to reach the 30-goal mark in their 5-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Highlights of the Night

Connor McDavid is always worth watching. Every. Single. Game.

Warren Foegele continued his impressive season for the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night with what is almost certainly his most impressive goal of the year. It was not enough for the Hurricanes as they fell 3-2 to the Washington Capitals. Still an amazing goal though.

The reason for optimism in Vancouver is the young core of players centered around Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and now Quinn Hughes. Hughes recorded his first career point on Thursday night, setting up Boeser, and it was an absolutely incredible play.

Factoids

  • Aleksander Barkov joins Pavel Bure and Olli Jokinen as the only Florida Panthers players to ever record 90 points in a season. [NHL PR]
  • Leon Draisaitl reached the 100-point mark on Thursday night, joining teammate Connor McDavid. They are the first set of Edmonton Oilers teammates to both score 100 points in a single season since Jari Kurri and Jimmy Carson during the 1988-89 season. They won the Stanley Cup that year. The McDavid-Draisaitl Oilers are going to miss the playoffs for the third time in four years. The supporting casts are little bit different [NHL PR]
  • Dustin Brown became the Los Angeles Kings’ all-time leader in games played on Thursday night. [NHL PR]

Scores

Detroit Red Wings 5, Buffalo Sabres 4 (OT)

Washington Capitals 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2

Columbus Blue Jackets 6, Montreal Canadiens 2

Florida Panthers 5, Ottawa Senators 2

New York Islanders 5, Winnipeg Jets 4

Dallas Stars 3, Edmonton Oilers 2 (SO)

Vancouver Canucks 3, Los Angeles Kings 2 (SO)

Chicago Blackhawks 5, San Jose Sharks 4

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.

Islanders stun Jets with late rally, move one step closer to playoffs

AP
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The New York Islanders weren’t in any serious danger of losing their hold on a playoff spot entering Thursday’s game in Winnipeg, and it was always going to be just a matter of when, and not if, they officially clinch a postseason berth.

Even so, they were some concerning trends starting to emerge over the past month. Perhaps the biggest one was that in their past eight games against against teams in a playoff spot they were only 2-6-0 with just 10 total goals scored (and six of those goals coming in just one of those games).

Trailing by two goals with less than 14 minutes to play on Thursday, it looked like they were on their way to yet another frustrating loss against a playoff team.

Then everything changed in an instant.

The Islanders scored three goals over the final 13 minutes, including two in the final two minutes, to storm back for a 5-4 win that moved them back into second place in the Metropolitan Division and has them one step closer to returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-16 season.

Jordan Eberle was the big hero for the Islanders on Thursday with a pair of third period goals, including the game-winner just 33 seconds after Casey Cizikas had tied the game.

Mathew Barzal also snapped what had been a lengthy goal-scoring drought for the Islanders, netting his first goal in 20 games.

As for the Jets, this could be a big missed opportunity.

At different points throughout the game they held leads of 2-0, 3-1, and 4-2, on home ice, with a chance to extend their lead over the Nashville Predators in the Central Division race. To not even get a single point out of that leaves the door wide open for the Predators to perhaps steal that top spot away from them.

The Jets’ lead over the Predators sits at two points while both teams have five games remaining.

Four of the Jets’ five remaining games are on the road.

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 Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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.

Islanders spoil Tavares’ Coliseum return with emphatic win

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. — One of the numerous chants that New York Islanders fans directed toward John Tavares Thursday night was “We don’t need you,” a reference to the team’s success this season after their former captain left for the Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency last summer.

For yet another night in the 2018-19 NHL season the Islanders didn’t need Tavares and a collective effort resulted in a 6-1 win, helping them regain sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division over Friday’s opponent — the Washington Capitals. 

You could argue it may have been their most comprehensive victory of the season.

“Yeah, it’s up there,” said captain Anders Lee, whose second period goal stood as the game winner. “We played pretty close [to it] for a full 60 [minutes]. I don’t know if we could get much better than that.”

Islanders fans had waited for this game since Tavares signed his seven-year, $77M contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1. The jilted feelings had built up since and the fans’ anger was on display inside and outside Nassau Coliseum.

There were plenty of Tavares Islanders jerseys that were switched up to either “91 TRAITOR” or “91 GORING,” thanks to some tape and a Sharpie, and there were some jerseys that were set ablaze, run over my passing cars in the parking lot, and a large amount of chants disparaging their former franchise player.

Inside the arena, Tavares was soundly booed every time he stepped on the Coliseum ice or touched the puck. No one in the rink could hear the sound from the tribute video played in his honor during a first-period television timeout. Even as he clapped in appreciation of the crowd and pointed toward the Islanders bench as his ex-teammates tapped their sticks to salute him, the noise was deafening.

Even with emotion in the building and the Islanders understanding that besides Tavares’ return, there were two big points on the line, they didn’t allow themselves to be caught up in the hoopla. The experience in their dressing room didn’t allow for that to be an issue at any point during the game.

“It definitely helps a lot,” said Casey Cizikas, who continued his career season by scoring his 18th goal. “We’ve got guys that’ve won Cups. We’ve guys that have gone the distance and when they speak, you listen. As a group, it’s definitely big and it goes a long way for us.”

When Tavares left in July, the Islanders were immediately written off. No could have imagined through 63 games they would be first in their division. Even with a new head coach in Barry Trotz and a new general manager in Lou Lamoriello, improvement was expected, but not this quick. 

It’s been a group effort to earn the success they have this season. Eight players have reached double digits in goals, 12 players have at least 20 points, and their goaltenders have combined for a .937 even-strength save percentage.

“We’ve talked about it all week in terms of just getting back to what we do best,” said Trotz afterward. “We come at you with the four lines. We stay on you and be on the right side of pucks and make good decisions, have structure when we need it, desperation when we need it, commitment when we need it.”

Thursday’s emphatic win against their former captain and a team they may see in April during the Stanley Cup Playoffs was another measuring stick game for the Islanders. They’ve continually answered the questions and doubts, and once again showed why their place in the Eastern Conference standings is deserved.

We don’t need you, the fans chanted. And the Islanders showed them why.

MORE: Islanders fans show their displeasure toward Tavares

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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.