, I went through some of the underlying numbers for both teams for the entire season and for the most recent 25 games. The summary was that the Penguins and Islanders are a push on goaltending and the Penguins are actually the better defensive team despite the narrative of Barry Trotz’s system. The Islanders have been good at generating high-danger chances, but still not better than the Penguins.
Today I want to look at some of the matchups the Penguins might try to go with in the series. The good news for Mike Sullivan is that he has options. The roster is as healthy as it has been all year. The additions of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann provide the coach with a wealth of flexibility with how he wants to attack the Islanders. Here is how the lines looked at the morning skate today:
Sullivan is going with the spreading the wealth approach. Splitting Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel has worked in the past and created a dynamic that is tough to keep up with. Patric Hornqvist playing with Malkin is going to help with the controlled entries which usually lead to more rubber towards the net, the lifeblood of Hornqvist’s success. The key to this approach is going to be somebody like Dominik Simon contributing some tangible offense. With Kessel he will be playing with somebody who can handle the puck and create for others. He needs to take advantage of that. I think Simon can. He has puck skills and can skate. If nothing else Simon did a wonderful job contributing to the Penguins ability to suppress shots
Mike Sullivan is looking to overwhelm the Islanders with these three scoring lines. He does have another route he could go if this strategy doesn’t go as planned. He could reunite the third line (Simon-Bjugstad-Hornqvist) and use them as a shutdown line. I think this might be the best strategy when looking at the Islanders forward ranks. We’ll see if it sees the light of day with some tinkering that is bound to happen over the course of a playoff series.
Let’s look at the Islanders:
The Islanders really only have one game breaker with Matt Barzal and if you can squash his impact on the game it will really go a long way in making the Islanders less dangerous. His ability to skate is top notch. He is able to create exits and entries on his own. If you can take that away with a disciplined F3 and an aggressive step at the blue line I don’t think the Islanders are team that will wear you down with a cycle. For this reason I think keeping the Simon-Bjugstad-Hornqvist line together could be useful and I would hard match them against the Islanders best talent. This frees up Crosby and Malkin to work against less dynamic talent and I like their odds in that scenario. For now, I would use the Guentzel-Crosby-Rust line in a best on best approach.
The way Mike Sullivan deploys his defense is a topic that has received a lot of attention this year on the blog. It remains an important variable in how the Penguins are able to attack the Islanders. There is still some mystery about how the Penguins defense will look heading into Game 1. Brian Dumoulin is considered a game-time decision, but he did not participate on a normal pairing at practice today. Here is how it looked:
This is how things would look if Dumoulin were unable to go on Wednesday so I’m not sure we learn anything from the deployment at today’s practice. If this is the Game 1 look I would match Letang’s pairing against the Barzal line. This of course means Barzal’s line will get the Crosby treatment which I mentioned above. I don’t see the Islanders winning that matchup.
The Penguins will have to to navigate a second line with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey. Those two are capable players , but they appear to be saddled with Tom Kuhnhackl(!) so that isn’t going to help their cause. I would try and get Pettersson-Gudbranson out against this second line. It likely means the Simon-Bjugstad-Kessel trio would be along for the ride. This is another matchup I think the Penguins can win. I believe this to be the case because of the way Simon and Bjugstad have played defensively and adding game breaking ability of Phil Kessel can help push the other two offensively in a way Patric Hornqvist couldn’t.
That leaves the McCann-Malkin-Hornqvist line to play against Beauvillier-Filppula-Komarov who are a 38.1 xGF% line this year. This seems like an appropriate place as any to put the abysmal Johnson-Schultz pairing.
These matchups could look even better if you have a top four grouping of either:
As I mentioned before the roster hasn’t been this healthy all year. Mike Sullivan has the ability to do a lot of things. Whether or not he does is a different conversation. Everything seems to be in place for a successful series against the Islanders. Pittsburgh has more talent, their goaltender is playing as well as New York’s great duo, and the team is healthy. There aren’t really any excuses.
Some other notes:
Jordan Eberle was a shell of himself this year. He finished the year with a 5v5 points per 60 of 1.4 which is incredibly low. His 24 points at 5v5 are a career low as was the 1.4 rate of production. Matt Barzal is a magician with his playmaking. He’ll need Eberle to show up to maximize his contributions.
Speaking of Barzal he only has one goal in his last 24 games and no power play goals in 43 games.
Years ago Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk were huge offseason additions for the New York Islanders. They were a team worst 44.46 and 46.38 respectively with their CF%.
Devon Toews is statistically the Islanders best defenseman. He leads the Islanders defense with a 1.05 points per 60 and an xGF% of 57.69.
This will be Robin Lehner’s first playoff action since 2013 when he played two games against the Penguins when he saved 23 out of 25 shots in relief of Craig Anderson.
Here’s another look at the series by Dom Luszczyszyn. Dom is as thorough as anybody in the profession and I highly encourage people to read his previews for each of the eight playoff series.
Jesse Marshall of The Athletic also had a systems breakdown for the series
I was invited to join Dan Hopper on The Only Pittsburgh Sports Podcast and had a great time breaking down the Islanders and Penguins series
Thanks for reading!