The Pittsburgh Penguins were 5-5-1 and had lost four of five when Jim Rutherford stepped down and the team hired Ron Hextall and Brian Burke in an unexpected management shakeup in early February.
Since then the team has gone 32-11-2 and look every part the Stanley Cup contender as they get set for a series with the New York Islanders.
Barry Trotz’s team swept the Penguins when they met in the post-season two years ago before the Islanders went on a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final in the bubble last season.
Penguins home games, beginning with Game 2 on May 18, will see PPG Paints Arena operate at 50 per cent capacity. There was a 2,800-fan limit enforced the past two games these teams faced off.
The two teams haven’t played each other since late March, so let’s take a closer look at the best-of-seven series.
Penguins: 50.29 CF% (14th), 55.75 GF% (5th), 92.50 SV% (5th), 9.38 SH% (5th), 1.019 PDO (3rd)
Islanders: 48.56 CF% (20th), 55.67 GF% (6th), 93.11 SV% (3rd), 8.55 SH% (9th), 1.017 PDO (5th)
REGULAR-SEASON TEAM STATS
Penguins: 23.7 PP% (4th), 77.4 PK% (27th), 3.45 GF/G (2nd), 2.77 GA/G (13th)
Islanders: 18.8 PP% (21st), 83.7 PK% (6th), 2.71 GF/G (20th), 22.3 GA/G (2nd)
The Penguins picked up 12 of a possible 16 points against the Islanders, however five of the eight games were decided by one goal. Pittsburgh did win all four of their home games in regulation. In fact, the Penguins had the best home record in the NHL (22-4-2) and the Islanders had the second-worst road record (11-13-4) in the East.
Indications out of Pittsburgh are that Sidney Crosby is raring to go with the Pens only winning one post-season game since 2018.
“I know how excited he gets this time of year,” Mike Sullivan said earlier this week. “He wants to win in the worst way. I think when he comes to the rink, he exudes that. The way he carries himself. The way he interacts with his teammates, both on the ice and off the ice. I think our players recognize it. Certainly, our coaching staff does. I think that’s part of what makes Sid the leader he is.”
Crosby has consistently lit up the Islanders throughout his career with 122 points in 75 regular-season games and nine points in a five-game series in 2013 but he only managed one assist in the series sweep two years ago.
Evgeni Malkin is back for the Penguins and trade deadline acquisition Jeff Carter was en fuego down the stretch with nine goals in the final 11 games of the season (although four of them did occur in one game against Buffalo). Carter’s addition gives Pittsburgh envious depth down the middle.
The Islanders haven’t faced the Pens with Carter in the lineup. On the other hand, Pittsburgh hasn’t seen the Isles up close since they added Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac.
Trotz once again has a defensively sound group that can more or less roll four lines, but can they match Pittsburgh’s firepower? New York has struggled to score at times this season and finished the season on a 5-6-3 run, losing four of the last five.
Penguins X-Factor: Evgeni Malkin
Malkin failed to average better than a point per game for the first time in a decade – same goes for in each of the past three playoffs – and he missed more than 20 games with a lower-body injury before returning earlier this month and adding four points in his final four games. Even though it hasn’t been his best season, Malkin’s presence in the lineup is invaluable. His linemates, Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker, also each had four points in the final four games of the regular season.
Islanders X-Factor: Semyon Varlamov
One area where the Islanders might have an advantage is in net. Varlamov is bound to get some Vezina votes after posting a 19-11-4 record, .929 save percentage, 2.04 goals-against average and a league-leading seven shutouts. Varlamov, though, struggled against Pittsburgh this year with a .897 save percentage and 2.86 GAA in seven appearances versus the Pens, so there will be pressure for him to outplay Tristan Jarry.