The Islanders and Penguins will meet in the playoffs for the sixth time and in the first round for the second time in Barry Trotz’s three seasons on Long Island.
The Islanders have won four of the five series, including a four-game sweep in 2019.
"The last series was a long time ago," Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech said. "But I think that, in general, this is a group that has performed well in the playoffs and we have confidence going into the playoffs."
Here’s a position-by-position look at the teams:
Forwards: Sidney Crosby (24 goals, 38 assists) is still elite and his wings, Jake Guentzel (23 goals, 34 assists) and Bryan Rust (22 goals, 20 assists) are great complements. Evgeni Malkin (eight goals, 20 assists) will be healthy for Game 1 and third-line center Jeff Carter’s acquisition from the Kings has been crucial. He had nine goals in 14 games after being acquired.
The Islanders’ strength is four-line balance. Kyle Palmieri must be more productive after notching two goals in 17 games after being acquired from the Devils. Versatile Jean-Gabriel Pageau (14 goals, 14 assists) may be the X factor. Leo Komarov has settled into injured Anders Lee’s spot on the top line with Mathew Barzal (17 goals, 28 assists) and Jordan Eberle (16 goals, 17 assists). The trio of Brock Nelson (18 goals, 15 assists), Anthony Beauvillier (15 goals, 13 assists) and Josh Bailey (eight goals, 27 assists) was the Islanders’ best in last year’s playoffs and late this season.
Defensemen: Kris Letang (seven goals, 38 assists) has a well-established pedigree for the Penguins but their season steadied once Brian Dumoulin (four goals, 10 assists) returned from an early-season injury. Mike Matheson, if healthy, can be a physical force but the Penguins’ depth has been tested.
The 128 goals the Islanders allowed were the second fewest in the NHL and depth has been key. Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock will be matched against Crosby so it’s the second pairing of Nick Leddy (two goals, 29 assists) and Scott Mayfield that will be crucial. Those two have struggled defensively at times but can’t afford to do so against either Crosby or Malkin’s line. Edge: Islanders
Goalies: Semyon Varlamov had his best playoff run last season as he went 11-7-0 with a 2.14 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage in leading the Islanders to the Eastern Conference finals. He just improved on that this season, setting a team record with his 2.04 GAA and tying Chico Resch’s team record with seven shutouts. Ilya Sorokin (13-6-3, 2.17, .918) practiced with the Islanders in the playoff bubbles last season but did not play.
The Penguins’ tandem of Tristan Jarry (25-9-3, 2.75, .909) and Casey DeSmith (11-7-0, 2.54, .912) have a combined one game of NHL playoff experience. Both struggled earlier in the season but finished strong and both are healthy again after battling late-season injuries.
Power play: The Penguins’ power play ranked fourth in the NHL at 23.7% and both Crosby (22) and Guentzel (18) ranked in the league’s top 20 for power-play points. In comparison, the Islanders ranked 21st at 18.8% and Leddy’s team-leading 11 power-play points were 93rd in the NHL. The Islanders, who sorely miss Lee on the man advantage, do have a dangerous weapon in rookie Oliver Wahlstrom’s shot from the left circle.
Penalty kill: The Islanders ranked sixth in the NHL at 83.7% and killed off 22-of-24 to end the season. The Islanders were disciplined, too, as their 135 times shorthanded were second fewest in the NHL. The Penguins’ penalty kill struggled at times as it ranked 27th at 77.4%. To be aware of, though: the Penguins were tied for fourth in the NHL with six shorthanded goals.
Coaching: Mike Sullivan did another masterful job in his sixth season with the Penguins — perhaps his best including Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017 — navigating through a injury-tinged season to a first-place finish. This will be his fifth playoff matchup against Barry Trotz, beating the Capitals in the second round en route to both Cups, then losing in the second round as Trotz led the Capitals to the Cup in 2018. Trotz’s Islanders swept the Penguins in the first round the following season.
Neil Best: Islanders in five – Their goaltending is far better and their defensive structure is capable of discombobulating anyone, including Sidney Crosby.
Andrew Gross: Islanders in seven – I suspect the Penguins’ goaltending will not be suspect at all. But I also suspect the playoff-tested Islanders will still find a way to win.
Colin Stephenson: Islanders in six – The best goalie and the best defense usually wins in the playoffs. The Penguins’ goaltending is simply untrustworthy. So is their defense, really.