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May 1, 2013
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders

by Ryan Schwepfinger

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In a series that could debunk the paradigm of systematic, defensive playoff hockey, the upstart New York Islanders will take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. Reminiscent of last season's Flyers/Penguins tilt, this series features two top-10 offenses, potentially suspect goaltending, and two teams with something of a history between them.

Even strength

New York Islanders close-game Fenwick: 52.0% (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins close-game Fenwick: 49.9% (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Total: New York Islanders, +2.1%

It might be surprising to find that the Islanders are the better even strength possession team, but this statistic is a bit flawed thanks to the small sample size of the shortened season. For the first 10 weeks of the season, the Penguins had been humming along as a top possession team, while the Islanders consistently ranked around 20th in the NHL. The Islanders surged in the final weeks to surpass Pittsburgh, in the same timeframe that the Pens were forced to play largely without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang, and Paul Martin. All are positive on-ice Corsi players, and only Martin has a negative relative mark. All of the Pens regulars, sans Crosby, should be good to go in game one. The lineup Pittsburgh will ice is surely better than their cumulative ranking, making this statistic a tad misleading, given the realities of the short season and its effect on percentage-based stats.

The Islanders, however, deserve credit for their rise to 11th in the NHL. Early in the season, this was a club fueled almost solely by the Matt Moulson-John Tavares-Brad Boyes line. Lubomir Visnovsky's arrival was a nice catalyst for New York, but the surge was caused by improved play of the second and third lines, a big key in this series for the Isles.

Advantage: Even

Islanders offense vs. Penguins defense

New York Islanders offense: 7.6 GVT (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins defense: 1.1 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending: 5.9 GVT (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Total: New York Islanders, 0.6 GVT

Despite the hot play of the Islanders' offense down the stretch, New York is a club that still has the look of a one-line team. As Dan Bylsma is one of the best coaches at matching up his lines, the Tavares unit can expect to see a heavy dose of shutdown-role players such as Brandon Sutter, Matt Cooke, and Brooks Orpik, who are all accustomed to playing in their own zone.

The Islanders will need to see the play they received from their secondary lines in the last month of the season continue over to the playoffs if they hope to succeed. The unit of Kyle Okposo-Josh Bailey-Frans Nielsen was dynamite for the last six weeks of the regular season. They, along with the third unit featuring speedster Michael Grabner, will have to continue to create chances for the Isles to have a shot in this series.

Skepticism of the Penguins begins in net, where many point to Marc-Andre Fleury's collapse in last season's playoffs as the sole reason this club will not win the Cup. Bylsma has the luxury of Tomas Vokoun for this series—unlike Brent Johnson last year, Vokoun is a goalie Bylsma can be confident in turning to in full should Fleury lapse. Among all goaltenders with 20 or more games played, only two have a higher even strength save percentage than Vokoun's .940.

Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins offense vs. Islanders defense

Pittsburgh Penguins offense: 34.6 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
New York Islanders defense: 2.7 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
New York Islanders goaltending: -8.2 GVT (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Total: Pittsburgh Penguins, 40.1 GVT

For the second consecutive year, Pittsburgh enters the playoffs with the year's number one ranked offense in goals per game. Even without Sidney Crosby, this is a team that is capable of scoring at any time, and in bunches.

Much will be asked of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic in this series. The two make up the closest thing the Islanders have to a shutdown pair, and they will log the heavy minutes against the Kunitz-Malkin-Neal unit. That screams advantage Penguins, and that is before you factor in what the Pens' second unit of Dupuis-Jokinen-Iginla could do against the Isles' other defensive pairings.

Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky are mainstays, but offensively oriented. Depth defensemen such as Brian Strait, Thomas Hickey, and Matt Carkner will be overmatched against whichever secondary line they are asked to play against . The Islanders' defense corps is at its best when it can join the rush and create chances. Doing that with regularity could be suicide against the Penguins, arguably the deepest top nine in the NHL, with or without Crosby.

Evgeni Nabokov is a serviceable veteran in net, but he is no more than league average at this point in his career. The Isles will need him to be great in weathering the storm Pittsburgh is sure to throw at him.

Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins

Islanders power play vs. Penguins penalty kill

New York Islanders power play: 5.6 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins penalty kill: -4.8 GVT (Rank: 25th in NHL)
Total: New York Islanders, 10.4 GVT

One of the Islanders' most notable strengths is team skating and speed, typically skills that lend themselves to drawing penalties. Despite that, New York ranked just 18th in the league in power play opportunities in the regular season. Their elite top-end talent, fueled by John Tavares' nine power play goals, was able to cash in 19.9% of the time (11th in the NHL).

The Islanders greatest chance in this series might be dependent on getting the Penguins to take bad penalties, and then exploiting their uncharacteristically poor penalty kill. The Penguins ranked 25th in the NHL on the penalty kill this season, despite ranking third, first, and ninth, and eighth in the previous four.

The Flyers have been able to get the Penguins off their game in this manner at times, dating back to their series last year. The Islanders, led by NHL hits leader Matt Martin, will be hoping to do the same.

Advantage: New York Islanders

Penguins power play vs. Islanders penalty kill

Pittsburgh Penguins power play: 11.3 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
New York Islanders penalty kill: -2.9 GVT (Rank: 19th in NHL)
Total: Pittsburgh Penguins, 14.2 GVT

Inconsistency on the power play has bitten the Penguins in years past, but this year's unit has seemed to put it together. Ranking second in the league, the firepower the Penguins can roll out at even strength is magnified on the man advantage, where Pittsburgh's four-forward unit is one of the most star-studded the league has ever seen.

The reliance on MacDonald and Hamonic will be no different on the penalty kill than it is at even strength. MacDonald tied for third in the league in blocked shots, and Hamonic ranked 12th. The two will have to continue shielding pucks from getting to Nabokov.

Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins

Season series results

The division rivals met five times on the season, with Pittsburgh taking four. The Islanders won the opener between the two teams, 4-1, but Pittsburgh took the last four by a combined 16-5 score.

Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins

Faceoffs

New York Islanders faceoff percentage: 49.7% (Rank: 19th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins faceoff percentage: 51.5% (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Total: Pittsburgh Penguins, 1.8%

The Penguins' faceoff strength is largely backed by Sidney Crosby's stellar record, but one of the reasons Ray Shero acquired Jussi Jokinen is his equal ability to win a strong majority of his draws. Brandon Sutter is slightly over 50%, and Evgeni Malkin is below average.

Tavares and Nielsen, meanwhile, take the majority of the Islanders' draws, and neither has won over 50% on the season.

Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins

Injuries and intangibles

The Penguins appear to be healthy at the right time after a brutal April, but with all of the knocks their stars suffered, there is no telling how healthy they actually are. Despite that, even if Sidney Crosby is assumed to miss the entire series, the Penguins have both the overall depth and the intangibles of playoff experience that the Islanders do not have. Still, the Islanders have no major injuries of note, and have a player in John Tavares that could arguably be considered the best skater on the ice given Crosby's injury and Malkin's inconsistency this season.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

Pittsburgh Penguins: 46.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
New York Islanders: 0.0 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Total: Pittsburgh Penguins: 46.0 GVT

Expect a high scoring series with plenty of end-to-end action. These are two teams that play an exciting brand of hockey. In the end, the difference comes down to depth: the Penguins can roll three consistent scoring lines, whereas the Islanders' best-case scenario is that they will have two—if the Okposo-Bailey-Nielsen line maintains their level of play. The safety net of Vokoun helps shield the Penguins' most glaring weakness from last season. The Islanders have the talent to steal a game or two (despite the startling GVT disadvantage), but they will be overmatched over the length of the series.

Pittsburgh Penguins in five games

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NHL Playoffs, First Ro... (05/01)
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NHL Playoffs, First Ro... (05/01)
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NHL Playoffs, First Ro... (05/02)
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Premium Article Howe and Why (05/02)

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