The playoffs are upon us, Isles fans. You may have wanted Pittsburgh. You may not have wanted Pittsburgh. Regardless, the New York Islanders drew the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Could it have been prevented? Sure. The Islanders didn’t close out the season as we would have hoped they would have, but there were more places to point fingers at than the last three games of the year, capping off an 18-game stretch where the Isles finished 11-2-5.
Whatever. It’s water under the bridge. The Islanders made the playoffs. After the many responses I have received on preseason predictions, I can tell that many of us didn’t see the Islanders even sniffing the post-season.
With the Islanders making the post-season during a season where many predicted them out, it’s fair to say you wouldn’t expect the Islanders to beat the Penguins. Still, that’s basically the same expectation going into a series in any one-vs.-eight match-up. Historically, the Islanders have also proven that a one-vs.-eight match-up against the Pens hasn’t really meant anything. David Volek, anyone?
Rather than saying the Islanders will lose, or the Penguins will lose, why don’t we just break the series down? Coming up next, a look at the Islanders and Penguins’ first-round match-up for the 2013 playoffs.
The New York Islanders put on a nice offensive show for their fans this season. After finishing the 2011-12 season with the 26th-best offense in the NHL, the Islanders finished the 2013 season with the 8th-best offense in the NHL.
John Tavares led the Islanders with 28 goals in 48 games, while the Isles finally received secondary scoring from the rest of their line-up. Michael Grabner set himself back-on-pace for another 30-goal campaign, while Josh Bailey finished the season just five goals short of his career-high, in half the amount of hockey games. The Islanders fourth-line scored over 500% more than they had last season.
The Isles scored 2.81 goals-per-game, their highest total since the Isles last made the playoffs during the 2006-07 season.
Unfortunately, the Islanders will be going up against an offensive juggernaut in the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens led the NHL with 165 goals, ten more than the Chicago Blackhawks. Even without Sidney Crosby for the final twelve games of the season, the Penguins still continued to score a massive amount of goals.
I also cannot discount the fact that Crosby will be back for the playoffs. Crosby finished the season with four fewer points than the Art Ross winner (Martin St. Louis), despite missing a quarter of the season.
Advantage – Pittsburgh: With a roster that hosts the names Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Jarome Iginla, and James Neal, it’s hard to say the Islanders hold the offensive advantage.
The Islanders overhauled their defense before the 2013 season began. Steve Staios, Mark Eaton and Dylan Reese were shown the door. Matt Carkner was added via free agency. Lubomir Visnovsky was added via trade. Thomas Hickey and Brian Strait were added via the waiver-wire.
There is defensive-depth on Long Island, where the defensive play has improved ten-fold since the beginning of the season. Not counting shootout “goals”, the Isles only allowed 24 goals in their thirteen games in April, including a stretch of nine-straight games when allowing 2 or fewer goals.
Pittsburgh has the likes of Kris Letang, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik on their blue-line. Paul Martin also returned on Saturday night. Douglas Murray was added via trade in the middle of the season.
No, this isn’t going to be an easy defense to fight through, but they are vulnerable. In their twelves games played through April, the Pens allowed 35 goals. Weak offensive teams like the Sabres, Rangers, and Devils scored 18 of those goals.
Advantage - Penguins: The Penguins have more talent on the blue-line. The Islanders have played better during the last month, but it’s hard to say if they will be able to stop the Penguins. Granted, the Isles have played shutdown hockey against the Penguins in each of their last two hockey games. It wasn’t enough, though. The Islanders couldn’t score more than two goals in any of the last four meetings between the two teams.
Simply stated, Evgeni Nabokov is going to have to stand on his head in this series. Over the last month, Nabokov has. In April, Nabby finished with a record of 7-0-4, with three of those losses coming in a shootout. There are no shootouts in the playoffs, so you never know what that record could be in extended overtime.
Of course, his last loss came against the Penguins in a goalie-duel between himself and Tomas Vokoun. The Isles lost 2-0 after the game was tied at 0-0 for more than 50 minutes.
On Pittsburgh’s end, there are two goalies. Of course, Marc-Andre Fleury is the starter, Stanley-Cup under his belt and all, but I wouldn’t be so sure that Fleury gets all of the starts. Tomas Vokoun has the Isles’ number this season. In three-and-a-half games against the Islanders this season, Vokoun has allowed four goals. In one-and-a-half games against the Islanders this season, Fleury has allowed six.
Nabokov finishes the year with a record of 23-11-7, while Fleury finishes with a record of 23-8-0 and Vokoun finishes with a record of 13-4.
Advantage – Isles: The Islanders win the goalie battle. Despite his Stanley Cup, it’s hard for me to say Fluery is a “big-game” goalie, especially with his .904 save % in the postseason. Tomas Vokoun has not seen the playoffs since the 2006-07 season, and has never made it out of the first round in two tries. I know Vokoun has dominated the Islanders forever, but the postseason is different. For everyone who has complained about Nabokov not performing well in the playoffs, his .913 save % and 2.29 GAA is better than Fleury’s.
Four months later, the Islanders are in the playoffs. The inevitable blown leads disappeared. In game match-ups were often in the Islanders’ favor, especially after reuniting the Bailey-Nielsen-Okposo line to shutdown the opposition’s top-line. Cappy even made great use of his depth, rotating D-men in the sixth spot during the Islanders’ impressive 18-game season-closing stretch, where the Isles went 11-2-5. This was easily the best stretch of hockey since the 2001-02 season for the Isles.
Now, Jack Capuano is second in all-time wins for New York Islanders’ coaches. Who would have thought?
On the other side of this series, the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins are led with Dan Bylsma behind the bench. Byslma’s resume speaks for itself. After replacing Michael Therien in 2009, Bylsma has won a Stanley Cup , reached the playoffs in all five seasons with the organization, and won his first division title after his first-place finish this year. The only thing Byslma hasn’t done is win the President’s Trophy.
Capuano and Byslma will be meeting in the postseason for the first time in their coaching careers.
Advantage - Pittsburgh: Although Cappy has maximized the talent on his team, Bylsma has done the same. Although talent utilization is a wash, Bylsma’s resume has to count for something.
The Islanders special teams have dropped off quite a bit. The power-play dropped to 11th, and the penalty-kill dropped to 21st in the NHL. Once very efficient in 2013, the special teams’ units have failed to come up in big moments.
On the other hand, the Penguins have the second-best power-play, but the 25th-best penalty-kill. It’s going to be a tough-task to handle a power-play unit of Malkin-Crosby-Neal.
Advantage – Tie: Let’s face it. The Isles power-play, once the team’s bread and butter, has been awful recently. The Penguins also have taken the 9th most minor penalties in the NHL (27 more than the Isles), so New York should have their chances against the 6th-worst penalty-kill in the league. The Isles are 2/18 on the power-play against the Pens and the Pens are 3/14 on the power-play against the Isles in 2013.
Looking at the series on paper, Pittsburgh wins it. They have won four out of the five games against the Islanders this season. In a best-of-seven series, that about does it for the Isles.
I know we all want to say it’s a foregone conclusion that the Islanders are cooked, but history proves that we have been wrong time and time again. The Islanders have done enough good over the final third of the season that tells me they can play with anybody, including Pittsburgh.
You want my prediction? The Islanders take the series in seven games. They’re due. It’s been twenty years since the Islanders won their last playoff series. With the way this season has gone, with the way the Islanders have been counted out, I have to put some faith in this team.
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About the Author: Writes at Islanders Op-Timism. Islanders Season Ticket Holder who tends to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hofstra Graduate currently working at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates. I definitely want to end up working within the world of hockey. Blog: www.IslandersOptimism.com E-Mail: ChristopherTriantafilis@gmail.com Twitter: @ChrisTriants