NHL Playoff Preview: PIT vs NYI

In today’s edition of the Koho NHL playoff previews, we’re taking a look at the East division’s match-up between the No. 1 seed Pittsburgh Penguins and No. 4 seed New York Islanders.

The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was in 2018, when the Islanders eliminated the Penguins in a dominant four game sweep. This year however, the Pens showed composure against the Isles, outscoring them 26-19 with a record of 6-2-0.

Tate Laycraft covers the Penguins and Statistical Breakdown, while Michael Cotsalas covers the Islanders.

If you’re unfamiliar, or want to learn more about the statistics listed above, click here.

Kicking things off with rates-for/against, we have some relatively even shot quantities between the two teams. The Isles hold a slight advantage in the volume of shots they give up, while the Penguins hold a marginal advantage in the number of shots they take.

Both teams rank near the bottom in quantity of shots generated, but the Penguins show a major advantage when it comes to shooting ability. They rank first among playoff teams in goals scored above expected, demonstrating their efficiency in creating and capitalizing on quality chances.

The Islanders, meanwhile, who are traditionally commended for their systemic execution of defense-first hockey, have demonstrated quite the opposite. They rank 14th in quality scoring chances surrendered, as well as in rates-for this season. They struggle to keep the opposition out of high danger areas, while also showing difficulty in generating shots.

The real story for the Isles has been their goaltending, as Semyon Varlamov (2.04 GAA, .929SV%) and Ilya Sorokin (2.17 GAA, .918 SV%) have combined for the third best save ability heading into the playoffs. If the Islanders are to win this series, expect goaltending to play a significant role in their success.

When it comes to special teams, slight advantage Islanders. A well-oiled penalty kill is important against the likes of Crosby and Malkin.

The question is: can the Penguins continue to produce with the best offensive execution in the league? Or will Semyon Varlamov and the Islanders prove that the Penguins’ shooting ability was merely a matter of luck?

Looking to build upon their unexpected Conference Finals run from the 2020 playoffs, the Islanders enter the post-season as the four seed in the East Division. Without their captain Anders Lee leading the scoring charge, scoring diversity will be a must for a team hoping that last year wasn’t just lightning in a bottle. The under-the-radar and advanced metric supported pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock lead a sturdy, if-not unspectacular defense, with Semyon Varlamov starting in net. Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson center a top-six group looking to find more consistency.

Key points:

  • Who will be on the Barzal line? Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle flanked him for most of the season before Lee was lost to a torn ACL and will not return during the playoffs. Eberle stayed, but the left wing position was frequented by the likes of Leo Komarov, Travis Zajac, and Anthony Beauvillier. How quick will Barry Trotz look to get the hot hand with Barzal if things don’t go exactly as planned early on?
  • Who knows what the playoffs will hold for a guy like Oliver Wahlstrom. Following the acquisitions of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, Wahlstrom was told to ride the pine before returning due to offensive inconsistencies. Wahlstrom is far from a sure thing, but his scoring touch could be sorely needed if getting pucks in the back of the net becomes an issue against the Penguins.
  • Speaking of Kyle Palmieri, while his numbers were not great following his acquisition (17-2-2 for the Isles in the regular season) he was a necessity for a deep playoff run. Will he get his scoring touch back in time for the first round?
  • What will the usage of Noah Dobson look like? Last year, Dobson played sparingly in the bubble (1 game, 12:55 TOI) but was a mainstay for the defense this year playing 46 games. In order not to overuse the Pelech-Pulock pairing, Dobson will have to carry some weight
  • As much love as the fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck get, their offensive input this year was not what we’ve become accustomed to, despite still providing the energy Barry Trotz dearly likes. Look for that line to be used fairly often in order to shift momentum.

X-Factor: Kyle Palmieri. If he is unable to pot a few goals and is essentially invisible like he had been for stretches of the season, it will be indicative of the depth scoring not showing up and the Islanders will see a quick exit from the playoffs this year.

The Penguins enter the 2021 off-season in unfamiliar territory…

After finishing the season with 273 man games-lost to injury, they’re finally healthy (for now). Subsequently, they bolster some of the best offensive depth in the league.

After disappointing showings against the Islanders and Canadiens in the past two off-seasons, the Penguins have something to prove.

Not only is it one of their last kicks-at-the-can with the Crosby-Malkin-Letang core, but it’s the best team they’ve had since winning the cup in 2017.

Key points:

  • The trio of Guentzel-Crosby-Rust is the only line in hockey to feature three 20 goal-scorers. It is arguably the best line that Crosby has ever been apart of, on any stage.
  • In a season where Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews don’t exist, Sid is a Hart trophy finalist. You cannot overrate his importance to this team.
  • Is the third line the real deal? Jeff Carter may have scored nine goals in 14 games for the Penguins, but five of them came in his last two games, against the Buffalo Sabres. Jared McCann just played his best season in the NHL, but with the return of Evgeni Malkin, he’s been shifted off the top powerplay unit and demoted to the third line. Freddy Gaudreau emerged as a sleeper hit in limited showings this season and it seems that Mike Sullivan is ready give him the job. They’re all players with something to build on, but they need to prove themselves early if they want to stay together. They need to score.
  • The defensive pairing of Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson is one of the wildest success stories to come from this Penguins’ team. Matheson missed the last four games of the season due to injury; during that time, Cody Ceci struggled. They need to stay healthy and play to their transitional strengths to be effective.
  • Tristan Jarry is inconsistent and unproven when it comes to playoff hockey. How he performs in these playoffs is likely to cement his reputation in the eyes of most Penguins fans. He needs to find a way to compete with Varlamov. A scary reality for the 26-year-old.

X-factor: It’s Evgeni Malkin. What version of Geno are the Penguins are getting back?. Is it the sluggish turn-over machine that started the season? Or the productive turn-over machine that registered 12 points as part of an eight-game point streak in March? There is no changing Evgeni Malkin. He will never develop his two-way game. He’s going to make turnovers. He’s going to be lazy in the Penguins own-zone. In exchange, he needs to produce.

The model suggests that the Penguins have a slight edge in the series, with a 54.7% chance of victory. Without Varlamov in net, the Islanders chances would likely be much smaller given some of their underlying metrics.

Prediction: Pittsburgh Penguins in 7

Koho contributor picks

Connor McCalister: New York Islanders in 6

Tate Laycraft: Pittsburgh Penguins in 6

Michael Cotsalas: New York Islanders in 6

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