Down go the division winners! The New York Islanders sealed the deal on Wednesday night, taking down the Pittsburgh Penguins at home in a hard-fought six game series. The Isles, who have now advanced past the first round in three consecutive postseasons, took down a Penguins team that many expected to make a deep playoff run, even going as far as representing the east division in the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
It wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and there were some moments of stress and doubt thrown in there. But at the end of the day, the Isles got the job done. So with that said, what are some of the highlights to take away from New York’s opening round victory?
1) Isles’ depth showed up big time
When it comes to the Islanders, Mathew Barzal’s line is generally the one that drives the bus in terms of producing offense, but when that line goes flat, the rest of the team generally takes a dip as well. That wasn’t the case in this series, as the blue and orange’s middle-six forwards came to play.
At this point it’s honestly becoming pretty difficult to come up with praising adjectives to describe the play of the Beauvillier-Nelson-Bailey line, so I’ll stick with “spectacular” for now. The “Killer B’s” line was easily the best in this series. It seemed as if every time the Isles needed a big goal, these three were right in the middle of the action. The triplex of 18, 29 and 12 combined for 19 points over the course of the six-game series, including a combined three goals and eight points in the series clincher.
Jumping one line down, the third line of Kyle Palmieri, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Oliver Wahlstrom was fantastic as well. Pageau had six assists and tied for the team lead with seven points, while Palmieri (who had two goals in 17 regular season games) netted three goals in six postseason contests. Wahlstrom had a solid outing as well, putting up a goal and two assists in five games. Travis Zajac was a good replacement for Wahlstrom in game six after he went down with injury, but I’m sure I can speak for all Isles fans when I say I’m hoping we’ll see Wahlstrom back on the ice sooner rather than later.
2) The importance of goaltending
The differences in goaltending in this series, to put it lightly, was night and day. Narrowing in on the Islanders’ netminding duo, many people saw Semyon Varlamov as this team’s starter headed into the postseason as the seasoned veteran — and one of the key components to the Isles’ conference final run last year — so it seemed like a no-brainer to put Varlamov in net for game one. That wasn’t the case, as Varlamov was forced to sit game one due to a lingering lower-body injury. Enter Ilya Sorokin. And boy was this kid fun to watch.
From the moment the puck dropped for game one, Sorokin seemed as locked in and focused as ever. He faced upwards of 30 shots in each of his four starts and even played in two overtime games. To most rookies, this might have signaled some nerves or shakiness in the crease. But if there were any nerves, the White Whale certainly did a fantastic job at hiding them.
Compared to Varlamov’s numbers 0-2-0 record, 3.61 GAA, .903 save percentage), Sorokin’s were outstanding to say the least, finishing with a perfect 4-0 record, as well as a 1.95 GAA and a sparkling .943 save percentage. The Isles’ netminder of the future has proved it’s his net to lose, and he looks like he’s running with it so far.
As for Pittsburgh… Tristan Jarry… yikes. With an .888 save percentage and a 3.16 GAA (and an overwhelmingly weak glove side), Jarry’s first series as a postseason starter was disappointing to put it nicely. Looking at this series on paper, with the Penguins outshooting the Isles 231 to 187 over the six meetings, it’s clear that Sorokin was able to steal some games for the Isles. Jarry was barely able to keep above the average line, and his team fell as a result.
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) May 27, 2021
3) Home or away, the Isles held it together
Let’s start with the numbers for this topic. The difference between the Islanders’ record at home (21-4-3) and on the road (11-13-4) in the regular season were polar opposites, so much so that concern understandably began to build after the Isles slipped out of contention for home ice advantage.
When talking about this series before game one, I said on multiple occasions that the focus should be at the very least splitting the first two contests at PPG Paints Arena. The Isles’ dominance at home and the raucous Nassau Coliseum crowd made me confident in saying they’d split at worst at the Barn, so winning at least one game in Pittsburgh was crucial. Kyle Palmieri seemed to hear me, as his overtime winner in game one made that thought become a reality. The Isles posted identical 2-1 records both at home and on the road, but it’s more the wins on the road I’m impressed with compared to those at home. Both Isles victories in the Steel City came in extra time, both littered with golden opportunities for the home side to take it. But Barry Trotz’s squad proved they could bend but not break, and took two of three in front of a passionate Pittsburgh crowd.
The Islanders realistically could have swept the three games on the road if it weren’t for their scoring struggles in game two. To cap it off, what more can you say about Nassau Coliseum? 6,800 fans for games three and four and around 9,000 for game six, it sounded like a full barn to anyone not in attendance. They provided the exact home ice environment that makes teams afraid to come into the Coliseum during playoff time. Fort Neverlose was as loud as ever during this series. And as Brendan Burke said in the closing second of game six, “This old barn still has a few stories to tell.”
With the second round matchup against Boston set to get underway on Saturday, those stories will be unfolding very soon.
Follow Carter on Twitter @cbentivenga14