The Islanders did the hard part in making the playoffs.
Succeeding in the playoffs is the harder part.
Their first-round opponent, the Penguins, won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, beating Barry Trotz’s Capitals along the way both times, and still have a core of players from those championship squads — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang and goalie Matt Murray, most notably.
“A lot of similar faces,” center Brock Nelson said Monday after the Islanders’ first playoff practice in East Meadow. “It’s a big challenge for us. Nobody really expected us to be here. We’ve kind of proven a lot of people wrong, and we’ll stick with the same mindset of that little chip to go out there and show that we deserve to be here and just play our game.
“In the playoffs, you’re going to have to beat the best and, right away, the Penguins.”
Game 1 is Wednesday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum — the Islanders have home-ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time since 1988 — and Game 2 is Friday night before the series shifts to Pittsburgh for Game 3 Sunday afternoon and Game 4 Tuesday night.
The teams concluded their four-game regular-season series on Dec. 10, when the Penguins won a 2-1 shootout at the Coliseum.
“There’s stuff that can be had and there’s stuff that can be thrown out,” said Trotz, who led the Capitals to the Cup last season before joining the Islanders. “Both teams aren’t the teams they were back then. Both teams have grown in their respective identities. We’ll see where they are come Wednesday.”
This marks the fourth straight season Trotz will coach against the Penguins in a playoff series. The Capitals lost in the second round in 2016 (six games) and 2017 (seven games) before winning a six-game second-round series en route to their Cup.
“We know a lot about each other,” Trotz said. “We’re a little different from the Washington group, but systematically, we’re probably very similar.”
This season, each team was 2-1-1 with a shootout victory in the season series. The Islanders won, 6-3, at Pittsburgh on Oct. 30 and 3-2 in a shootout at Barclays Center on Nov. 1. The Penguins won, 6-2, at PPG Paints Arena on Dec. 6. The Penguins outscored the Islanders by an aggregate 12-11.
“I don’t see them changing their game that much going into a playoff series,” said Robin Lehner, the expected Game 1 starter, although Trotz said he would not reveal his goalie plans. “They’ve been there a lot before. They have a lot of good players, a lot of high-end talent and some of the best players in the league. I think their experience is invaluable. But we have the group of guys we have here and we’re going to stick to our game.
“I really like our chances.”
Crosby scored 100 points and leads a Penguins power play that finished fifth in the NHL at 24.6 percent. The Penguins have gotten healthier, too. Malkin returned for their next-to-last regular-season game after being out since March 16 with a rib injury, and Letang played the last five games after suffering an upper-body injury Feb. 23.
Coach Mike Sullivan said Zach Aston-Reese (lower body) and defenseman Brian Dumoulin (lower body) were full participants in Monday’s practice.
“They know what it takes to be successful in the playoffs,” said Islanders forward Tom Kuhnhackl, who played for the Penguins the previous three seasons. “They’ve shown it over the course of the last five, six seasons. It’s an exciting series for us. We’ve got to make sure we stay out of the penalty box. We’ve got to play physical against them. But we’ve got to play smart.”
Right wing Jordan Eberle said limiting turnovers and avoiding penalties are crucial for the Islanders. He said the biggest factor for the Islanders is just playing the same way they did in the regular season.
“There’s a reason we finished so high in the standings. We’re a good team,” Eberle said. “We have to be able to defend the way we know we can play. Play the way we know we can and be confident.”