The Islanders take on the East Division winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in round one of the 2021 playoffs.
The 2021 NHL playoffs are finally here and the New York Islanders are looking to make a deep run for the second year in a row. They and their fans hope it ends in a cup, this time.
The first stop on their journey is Pittsburgh. We’ve all gotten used to seeing the Islanders and Penguins face off in the playoffs: this is the sixth time they’ll be doing it.
The Islanders have won the last four and although the Penguins were the better team to end the season and did win the division, we can’t count Barry Trotz’s boys out.
The Penguins have arguably been the least-talked about top team in hockey. Expectations weren’t particularly high for them entering the 2021 season and they were one of the most injury-ridden teams in the league.
Future Hall of Famer Evgeni Malkin got off to a cold start and landed on the IR, questions surrounded the defense, Tristan Jarry looked shaky in net, and the team had practically no depth.
However, the Penguins did the near-impossible by overcoming these obstacles to finish at the top of the most difficult division in the league.
Sidney Crosby continues to prove why he’s one of the very best to ever do it, and will look to lead his team to victory in round one on home ice.
Over the years, the Islanders’ biggest strength has been their defense, which is one of the best in the league. Unfortunately for them, however, the Penguins have been able to score on the Islanders without much of a problem this season.
The playoffs are always a different animal, but the fact that the Penguins have been an absolute nightmare for the Islanders all season long is concerning.
What must the Islanders do to succeed?
The Islanders’ offense hasn’t been a significant strength of theirs for years, but it was especially bad this season, particularly down the stretch.
Of course, Anders Lee’s season-ending injury didn’t help. When Lee went down, he was arguably the team’s best player. That doesn’t even take into account the intangibles that he brought to the table as a veteran and, more importantly, the team’s captain.
The Islanders sought to address the void he left behind by acquiring Kyle Palmieri from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline.
Palmieri, who has a similar skill-set to Lee, has been one of the most underrated goal-scorers in hockey over the years, but hasn’t been particularly impactful since joining the Islanders.
The rest of the team isn’t scoring at the rate that the fanbase would like to see.
As great as the Penguins are, their defense is almost middle-of-the-pack and one that the Islanders can penetrate if they play their best hockey.
Mathew Barzal, the team’s best and most important player, will carry a heavy load. His team is going to need him to be at his best if they hope to do damage.
If Palmieri can get going now that he’s in the playoffs, the Islanders will be in a much better place.
Oliver Wahlstrom is another important player to watch. He’s been incredibly impressive this season, especially on the power play, and will need to continue his excellent play for the sake of his teammates.
Defensively, the Islanders are in a much better place. What makes them such an elite team is their blueline.
Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock make up one of the very best defensive pairings in the NHL and their supporting cast isn’t too shabby, either.
Nick Leddy, in particular, is worth mentioning. Leddy hasn’t been perfect, but he’s stood out on the power play and can be important for the Islanders there.
Scott Mayfield doesn’t do much offensively, but he’s actually been one of team’s better defensive-defensemen. We can’t underplay his importance, in that regard.
The Penguins have one of the very best offenses in hockey, so the Islanders are going to need their defensive group to stand tall and shut the opposition down. Mayfield, therefore, has a big role to play.
When they’re at their best, Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin make up one of the better goaltending tandems in the NHL.
Varlamov, who has been one of the best goalies in the league this season, will be the Islanders’ number one option in net during the playoffs.
Varlamov was one of the best goalies during last year’s playoffs, and the Islanders are going to need him to do it all again in 2021. As we mentioned, the Penguins have an elite offense, and Varlamov is going to have to be his sharpest in the crease.
Special teams is going to play a bigger role than most of us think. Th Penguins have one of the best power plays and one of the worst penalty kills in hockey.
The Islanders are the exact opposite, although their power play isn’t as bad as the Penguins’ penalty kill.
Fans are almost always confident in the PK when the Islanders are short-handed, but they should look for their team to produce while on the man-advantage. The Islanders have shined on the power play, at times, they just have problems staying consistent.
This is where guys like Wahlstrom, Brock Nelson, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau come in. They’ve been some of the Islanders’ top performers on the man-advantage, and must continue to be that during the most important time of year.
Some of the worst power plays in hockey have had no problem scoring on the Penguins and that should be the case for the Islanders.
Teams always hope to ease themselves into the playoffs. The Islanders will have their work cut out for them.
The Penguins are one of the best offensive teams in the league and have one of the best power plays. Their defense is above average and their only real issue is their penalty kill. This is a well-rounded and well-coached team that has experience winning.
They have multiple Stanley Cup winners, including three future Hall of Famers and a top-five player all time. And they’ll have the advantage of home-ice.
This is a lot to take in, but the Islanders are up to it. They’ve had their issues and did lose their captain, who is one of their best players, but their strengths are great.
They don’t have a fantastic power play and their offense is below league average, but their defense is the best in hockey when they’re on top of their game and their penalty kill is elite.
They have an amazing center in Barzal, the best fourth line in hockey, one of the best defensive pairings in the league, elite goaltending, and the best coach in the NHL.
History is on their side, too. This team is fully capable of beating the odds and beating the Penguins once again to move on in the playoffs.