The New York Islanders historic four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes much more sense when you look at the numbers.
Before the New York Islanders took the ice for their first game of the season against Carolina on Oct. 4, 2018, very few NHL prognosticators picked them to make the postseason.
In their preseason predictions, 17 of 18 NHL writers on NHL.com picked the Islanders to miss the postseason. Both ESPN.com and The Hockey News picked the Islanders to finish last in the Metropolitan Division.
The Islanders proved the writers wrong during the regular season by collecting the fifth most points in the league. Before the postseason started, 10 of the 15 writers for NHL.com chose Pittsburgh to win the series (all 15 of them picked the Lightning to defeat the Blue Jackets while 10 picked Tampa to win the Stanley Cup).
While the Islanders were completing their impressive four-game sweep of Pittsburgh, one can’t help but wonder how did so many experts get this team so wrong?
Stayed Out of the Box
The Penguins finished fifth in the NHL this season in power play percentage, scoring on 24.6 of their chances. Phil Kessel (12 G, 24 A), Sidney Crosby (12 G, 17 A) and Evgeni Malkin (9 G, 17 A) all ranked in the top 30 for power-play points.
After allowing Malkin to light the lamp on the power play to tie the game at two in the second period of Game 1, the Islanders shut their vaunted unit down. New York killed their final nine power-play chances in this series and finished 10-for-11 on the penalty kill. New York held the Pens to just nine total shots for the series while playing a man down, while also holding Crosby pointless in his 13:49 of power-play ice time.
Goaltending, Defense Wins Championships
Knowing that the Penguins had arguably the two best players on the ice in Malkin and Crosby, along with 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel and Kessel, the Islanders sought to shut them down with physical play and pressure.
After scoring three goals in Game 1, Pittsburgh scored just one goal in each of the final three games. The Penguins leading goal scorer (Guentzel) and point producer (Crosby) were both held to one point in the series, both coming in Game 4. After combining for two goals and two assists in Game 1, Malkin and Kessel were held to just one total point for the final three games.
The Islanders totaled five more takeaways and 13 fewer giveaways than Pittsburgh in the series. Casey Cizikas matched Evgeni Malkin for the most takeaways with five. The Islanders tormented Malkin and Crosby all series, forcing a combined 16 giveaways between them. Kris Letang led all players with 11 giveaways. No Islander had more than five.
New York made life miserable for Pittsburgh in the offensive zone, blocking 78 shots in the series, 20 more than the Penguins. Their physical play saw them outhit the Penguins 180-171, led by Matt Martin who had 33 hits.
Robin Lehner was sensational in net, stopping 130 of 136 shots faced in the series. Lehner became the first NHL goalie since Michael Leighton (2010 with Flyers) to win his first four career playoff starts. The Swede did not allow a goal in the second or third period over the final two games. Lehner leads playoff goaltenders with a .956 save percentage and 1.47 GAA.
Isles Play From Ahead With Balanced Scoring
Despite falling behind in each of the last three games, the Islanders did not allow another goal in all three games. They also answered the Penguins early goals very quickly. Overall the Islanders trailed for just 4:51 of the 124:39 played in the series. Pittsburgh spent more time with an empty net (5:55) than they did with the lead.
Jordan Eberle (4 G, 2 A) became the first Islander since Ray Ferraro (1993) to score in four straight playoff games to start the postseason. He also joined Ferraro as the only Islanders to score goals in each of their first four playoff games with the team. Eberle hadn’t scored in four straight games overall since January/February of 2012.
Mathew Barzal became the first Islander to record five assists in the first four games of a playoff year since Anders Kallur recorded six assists against the Capitals to start the 1983 postseason.
Seven different Islanders scored a goal against the Penguins, led by Eberle (4), Josh Bailey (3) and Brock Nelson (3). Only the fourth line of Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin along with goaltender Robin Lehner failed to register a point in the series.
The Islanders now get a bit of a rest while the Capitals and Hurricanes continue their series Wednesday night in Carolina. Washington leads the series 2-1.