Sports fans have a tendency to look to the past to draw hope for the future. With the New York Islanders set to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, many fans have already started to look to the Isles 2019 sweep of the Pens.
Islanders’ fans should be cautious when drawing inspiration from that series as coach Barry Trotz said, “Like I say that’s in a different decade it seems like. I don’t know if there will be a lot that will apply to this group it’s just been so long ago.”
In 2019 the Isles had the luxury of home ice advantage. This year the Pens have earned that by winning the MassMutual East Division. In their eight games head-to-head this season the Isles have a 2-4-2 record. During the 2018-2019 season over four games the two teams split their series.
Captain Anders Lee played in all four games in the previous series with Pittsburgh. He has been sorely missed since his season ended due to an ACL injury suffered back in early March. The rest of Lee’s teammates will have to overtake Sidney Crosby and company without him. They have more scoring depth which is a good start.
Excluding Lee, there are seven islanders averaging 0.50 points per game or better. Compared to the 2018-2019 group there were only four. They also allow less goals per game, 2.29 this year compared to 2.39 then. Another quality thing the current group shares with the former one is that they finished almost identical in goals per game averaging 2.79 goals per game and 2.78 goals per game respectively. When they swept the Pens, goal production soared to 3.5 goals per game. Maybe the stars are aligning for another offensive explosion.
During the sweep, players like Jordan Eberle and Mathew Barzal rose to the occasion, but there were offensive contributions across the top three lines. This season no Islander crossed the 20-goal threshold. To advance some players will have to score consistently paired with this depth in offensive production.
Strong defense and outstanding goaltending were a huge part of the last playoff meeting between these two clubs. As Penguins coach Mike Sullivan put it, “They play with a lot of structure and there’s a defense-first mindset. We’re going to have to be prepared for numbers back all the time.”
Similar to in 2018-2019, the Isles finished the season with one of the best goaltending tandems in hockey. Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess won the William Jennings Trophy as that season’s best goaltending tandem. Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin fell short of this year’s Jennings, finishing second. Ironically, it was Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury who earned that award in Vegas this season.
The shutdown defensive play of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock was on full display two years ago. That defensive pairing mainly kept Crosby — an Islanders killer — without a point till game four. That tandem is stronger now than it has ever been and replicating the previous success will be a key to advancing.
2019 déjà vu does not seem likely, this series will be very different. Take Barzal’s word for it, “It will be a war.” However, Isles fans should have confidence.
In spite of all the stumbles down the stretch the Isles are well equipped for this battle. A 2019 style sweep may not be in the cards, but a series reminiscent of the 1993 or 2013 ones seems likely.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryandunni