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Breaking down the Islanders-Penguins playoff series

Sidney Crosby leads a high-powered Pens' offense, but the Isles have the edge on defense and in goal.

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates against the Islanders'

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates against the Islanders' Brock Nelson at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum in Uniondaleon Dec. 10, 2018. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Islanders and Penguins’ first-round playoff meeting marks the fifth postseason series between the two.

The Penguins won their first-round series in six games in 2013. But the Islanders beat them in a seven-game division final in 1993, a five-game first-round series en route to their third of four straight Stanley Cups in 1982 and rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to win a seven-game quarterfinal in 1975 in the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs.

Here’s the breakdown on this series:

Forwards

Islanders: The Islanders rely on four-line balance and the fourth line of Casey Cizikas centering Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck almost invariably is on the ice for the start of each period. Still, the offense hasn’t come consistently. Mathew Barzal (18 goals, 44 assists) led the team with 62 points, down from his 85 his rookie season. Captain Anders Lee had a team-high 28 goals with Brock Nelson (25) and Casey Cizikas (20) following. Jordan Eberle (19 goals, 18 assists) finished the season with five goals and an assist in seven games. Valtteri Filppula’s return in the season finale after missing eight games with a hyperextended elbow helps.

Penguins: Sidney Crosby (35 goals, 65 assists) reached 100 points for the first time since 2013-14 and still dominates games as he was sixth in the league in scoring and seventh in assists. Jared McCann (11 goals, six assists) and Jake Guentzel (40 goals, 36 assists) join him on the top line and though the Penguins are not as deep as previous season, they still can roll four effective lines. Evgeni Malkin (21 goals, 51 assists), Bryan Rust (18 goals, 17 assists) and Phil Kessel (27 goals, 55 assists) are an equally-effective second line and ageless Matt Cullen (seven goals, 13 assists) anchors the fourth line.

Edge: Penguins

Defensemen

Islanders: The playing time is distributed fairly evenly between Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk, Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock and rookie Devon Toews-Scott Mayfield. Toews (five goals, 13 assists) has added a needed playmaking element in his half season, Mayfield, Pelech and Pulock (nine goals, 28 assists) have all taken big strides defensively this season, as has Leddy (four goals, 22 assists).

Penguins: The health of Kris Letang (16 goals, 40 assists) is paramount to the Penguins and the same is true for defense partner Ollie Maatta (13 goals, 14 assists). Marcus Pettersson (17 goals, 19 assists) has been a good pickup from the Ducks but the group is not always airtight.

Edge: Islanders

Goalies

Islanders: Robin Lehner (25-13-5, 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage) and Thomas Greiss (23-14-2, 2.28, .927) shared the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals. Lehner, with just two games of NHL playoff experience, is the expected Game 1 starter. He was third in the league in GAA and Greiss fourth and second in the NHL in save percentage with Greiss fifth.

Penguins: Matt Murray (29-14-6, 2.69, .919) has been in net for two Cup titles but struggled through injuries this season, including missing one game with a concussion. Casey DeSmith (15-11-5, 2.75, .916) is the backup.

Edge: Islanders

Special Teams

Islanders: The power play ranked 29th at 14.5 percent and was 3-for-50 (6.0 percent) over the final 22 games. Switching Barzal to the second unit hasn’t helped either unit. Filppula’s return is also a boost to the penalty kill, which ranked 18th at 79.9 percent and gave up eight goals in the last 11 games.

Penguins: The power play was fifth in the league at 24.6 percent and the first unit, featuring Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Guentzel and Letang can be a game-changer. The 19th-ranked penalty kill operated at 79.7 percent and was third in the league with 12 shorthanded goals, double what the Islanders had.

Edge: Penguins

Coaching

Islanders: Barry Trotz won the Cup last season with the Capitals and has orchestrated a historical defensive turnaround with the Islanders as he makes his 12th playoff appearance in 20 NHL seasons.

Penguins: Mike Sullivan led Pittsburgh to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017, beating Trotz’s Capitals in the second round both times.

Edge: Even

Prediction: The Penguins’ power-play, and Islanders lack thereof, could swing the series but the Islanders have been surprising people all season and have Game 7 at the Coliseum. Isles in 7.

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