Mat Barzal Sidney Crosby
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The New York Islanders will host the Pittsburgh Penguins for Game 1 on Wednesday evening to drop the puck on the 2019 postseason.

Matt Di Giacomo

With all 82 regular season games behind them, the New York Islanders prepare for a true assessment of their ability.

The Islanders proved a lot in the 2018-19 season to themselves and the NHL. Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz’s hard work has been recognized in a team that went from surrendering the most goals in the league a year ago to one of the franchise’s best goalie tandems of all-time with a William M. Jennings trophy already in tow.

Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss both enjoyed career-seasons, the defense, which personnel-wise was kept intact after a historically poor season, has never looked sharper.

Individual stats for all of Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle were cashed-in for a collective performance and the 2018-19 Islanders are the most successful iteration points-wise since the 1983-84 squad.

For the first time in 31 years, the Islanders will have home-ice advantage in a post-season series against a rival all-too-familiar to them and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

How far the Islanders can last through this series and beyond will be a renewed dedication to the system in place that got them to 103 points, with a little something extra.

Islander hockey

Over the course of the season, the Islanders’ defense has become trademark of their shutdown style of play. The lowered goals-against is an easy nod to the goaltenders, but even in postgames, they’ve been quick to share gratitude with the entire squad.

On top of taking the Jennings this season, the Islanders rank 12th-best in fewest shots allowed and revived their dead-last penalty kill up to 18th.

The truest testament to the overhaul by Trotz is that the defensive corps really didn’t change much from the 2017-18 season. The Isles re-signed Thomas Hickey and brought in Luca Sbisa as insurance (and officially signed Dennis Seidenberg just before the deadline as insurance to the insurance).

Johnny Boychuk reemerged this season after his last two seasons seemed to indicate his best years were far behind him and he’ll be counted on alongside Nick Leddy. Trotz managed to turn fringe lineup contenders Scott Mayfield & Adam Pelech into a fully molded NHL pairing.

Devon Toews‘ arrival in December added another developing cog in the Isles potent defense and a powerplay quarterback option. Since arriving, Toews scored five goals and 18 points in a 48-game sample.

Offensively, Barzal’s 62 points are disappointing compared to his 85 compared to his rookie campaign, but he’s just one of eight skaters to score at least 16 goals this season.

Point production came from everywhere on the ice with contributions from the fourth line (Cal Clutterbuck‘s 23 points matches his highest total with the Islanders from 2015-16) beyond. Casey Cizikas blossomed in an expanded role more than doubling his previous career-high in goals and reached 20 for the first time in his career.

This was all spearheaded by Matt Martin‘s return and though all missed varying times with injury throughout the year Ross Johnston is the perfect candidate to give one of the regulars a break (1 goal, 4 points in 17 games).

A team-wide buy-in to Trotz’s system arrived almost exactly as advertised. The overall offensive production was traded in for a system that brings defensive responsibility, fewer shots against and 100 fewer goals.

Defense has become a staple of the Islanders’, and it will be tested by a high-powered offense with plenty of playoff experience.

Penguins' playoff keys

Offensively, the Penguins are the most productive they’ve been in the last three seasons. Sidney Crosby leads the pack after just polishing his sixth-career 100-point season — the first since 2013-14.

Phil Kessel has scored at least 82 points in back-to-back seasons after managing 70 or less in the previous three campaigns. Evgeni Malkin‘s proudction has leveled at 72 points this season (21 goals) and Kris Letang‘s 56 points are his highest total since scoring 67 in the 2015-16 season.

All of that on top of Jake Guentzel‘s 40-goal season makes up for an offensive core that has been tested before and is ready to battle again.

After their defense of a third-straight title was cut short last offseason, the Penguins had a little extra time in the offseason to decompress. Not having home ice for them is arbitrary — this is largely the same group that won two consecutive championships in an era where such a feat was supposed to be virtually impossible.

Contrast to the Isles, the Pens are built on their high-octane firepower (sixth-most goals-for in the NHL, fifth overall in most shot attempts). Not much more has to be said about their elite goal-scoring ability, but defensively there are some questions.

To start the season, the Penguins went on a small hot streak and won six of their first nine games. From Oct. 30 through Nov. 23, they won two of 12 games and eventually found their winning ways thanks to an eight-game winning streak from Dec. 19 through Jan. 4.

While a slow start wasn’t ideal for their overall playoff picture, the Penguins and Islanders are different teams now than they were when they played in the regular season.

This especially applies to Matt Murray who went 4-5-1 with an .877 save percentage in his first 11 starts. Head Coach Mike Sullivan turned to Casey DeSmith for about a month from Nov. 19 through Dec. 14 and it helped revive the Penguins’ season.

DeSmith went 7-2-2 with a .918 save percentage in the stretch and kept the team afloat in time for Murray to take the crease back with nine-straight wins in each start he made from Dec. 15 through Jan. 11 (.953 save percentage, 1.55 GAA).

The Penguins are not a great defensive team. They are 14th overall in goals-against, but allow the sixth-most shots on goal (33.3 on average). Save for the goaltenders, this is a team that is fallible and can be exploited with a lot of work.

The round 1 gameplan

For the New York Islanders to find success in what will be a long, arduous series, it boils down to these key components:

  • Do not take careless penalties
  • Get under their skin
  • Find another level offensively
  • Stick to Trotz’s system

Right out of the gate, Sporting News has the Islanders among the four teams with the lowest odds to win the Stanley Cup. As they did in the regular season, the Islanders have to keep embracing the role of underdog.

Many Islanders on the roster remember the 2013 playoff series (Martin, Cizikas, Nelson, Bailey, Hickey) and how close the Isles actually were to pulling off an upset. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, they sat then-head case Marc-Andre Fleury in favor of Tomas Vokoun who back-stopped them all the way to the Eastern Conference Final.

One thing the Islanders were able to do is frustrate the Penguins. In both games two and four in that series, the Penguins took four of each game’s first five penalties. Contrast to how the game was six years ago now, the Islanders will need to make their offensive strikes count and hold off an inevitable storm of push-back after a goal-for.

If the Islanders begin to stray away from the structure that got them 103 points in the regular season, it will be a swift series. On an individual basis, the Penguins are undeniably more talented, but this isn’t news to Barry Trotz.

This will be the fourth-straight post-season Trotz has to go through the Penguins, and who better to have than the boss who ended their bid for a three-peat just under a year ago.

Commitment to structure and belief in Trotz is what can push the Islanders through the first round of the post-season. The Islanders securing home-ice advantage has been underrated by the same experts who picked the Islanders to finish last.

In a series that is set to go the distance having the deciding tilt take place on Long Island is the difference and will push the Islanders over Pittsburgh in seven close games.

Staff Picks

John Fiorino

The Islanders finally receiving home-ice advantage for a series will prove to be the extra edge they need. The Penguins, while strong, are older and tired from all of their long playoff runs. It won’t be an easy series for the Islanders, but with the combination of strong defense, home-ice and an older Penguins crew, the Isles will prevail in 7 games. The ambiance of the Coliseum will be too much for the Penguins to handle and will push the Islanders into the second round.

Islanders in 7.

Donny Savitsky

This series is two teams that play complete opposite styles of hockey. The Penguins were one of the league’s most prolific offenses while the Islanders were the leagues best defense.
The series may end up coming down to who can impose their strengths on the other team.
The Penguins have four 70-point players and a 56-point defenseman in Kris Letang. Sidney Crosby had yet another 100 point season, young star Jake Guentzel scored 40 goals, and you can’t forget the likes of Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel. They can shove speed and skill down a teams throat at will.
The Islanders, on the other hand, led the league with 191 goals against. This is a direct result of the system Head Coach Barry Trotz has instilled. The goalies have been no slouches either, both Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess both won at least 23 games, recorded 5 shutouts or more, a GAA of 2.28 or less and a SV% of .927 or less.
The Islanders have been playing a defensive-minded, grind-teams-out-type of style all season. This style has prepared themselves for the intensity that is the Stanley Cup playoffs, even against a team like the Penguins.
Islanders in 6.
Grew up a diehard Islanders and Mets fan based out of Northern New Jersey. Concluding my Broadcast Communications degree at William Paterson University. WP Sportsdesk member, Stan Fischler correspondent, music buff and total Star Wars freak. Follow my social media handles to learn more. Matt Di Giacomo is a Staff Writer for the Islanders on Elite Sports NY. He encourages team discussion. Tweet him @mdigiacESNY and check out his reviews on YouTube.