New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Islanders center Mat Barzal sneaks a shot past former Penguins goalie, Matt Murray in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.
(Julio Cortez/AP)

2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round One Preview: Islanders vs. Penguins

As we’ve all become very well aware of, this year’s playoffs are just plain strange. With disgruntled divisions, the elimination of wild cards, and the shortened season, the structure is one that I don’t particularly enjoy. 

The Eastern Division is arguably the most competitive across the league. With hockey dynasties like the Bruins and the Rangers competing with championship-hungry teams like the Islanders and the Flyers, it’s never a boring night in the East. And this season, a battle will ensue in the first round between Pittsburgh and the Island. 

This is the second time in three years that these teams will face each other in the post season. In the 2018-19 season, New York swept Pittsburgh in the first round.

It’s been quite a journey for the Isles this season, to say the least. After losing their captain, Anders Lee to an ACL tear in early March, it’s been an uphill battle for them to find any sort of consistency on the ice. Long Island golden boy, Mat Barzal fell victim to this inconsistency very quickly after having two very long scoring droughts. 

These teams look significantly different now than the last time they faced one another back on March 29th. Pittsburgh traded forward Jeff Carter to Los Angeles. And New York acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils. 

Season Series: 

This series has been dominated by the Penguins. With a 5-3 record, Bary Trotz’ Islanders are in for a tough one. Sidney Crosby has more points against the Islanders than he has against any other team in the NHL in his whole career. 

Mathew Barzal, despite the scoring droughts, still leads the team in points with 17 goals and 28 assists. Anthony Beauvillier has also been quite a diamond in the rough this season with 15 goals and 13 assists after missing nine games early on. He also had an incredible run in the playoffs last season. 

Pittsburgh’s largest struggle for this series will be getting past Semyon Varlamov. New York’s biggest struggle will be not sucking on the back end. (Would you believe me if I told you I’m wearing an Isles shirt while writing this?) 

Goal Tending: 

Penguins: Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been fairly average this season. Neither of them is conventionally bad, just not phenomenal. Jarry made 38 starts this season with a .909 SV% and a 2.75 goals-against-average. He went 6-5 against the Islanders. DeSmith started 20 games and had a .912 SV%. However, he missed the last three games due to injury. 

Islanders: Semyon Varlamov has been exceptional this season. He is definitely a contender for the Vezina trophy. Varlamov had a .929 SV% and a 2.04 GAA. He’s tied for the most shutouts in the 2020-21 season with Philipp Grubauer at seven. Semyon will be in tandem with baby goalie Ilya Sorokin. The rookie has .918 SV% and a 2.17 GAA. He allowed two goals OR LESS in seven of his last nine starts. 

New York Islanders for the win: 

If the Islanders intend on moving past the first round, they need to play as they did against Jersey on Saturday. They brought home the two points with a 5-1 win. They were consistently stronger and faster on the defensive end. 

Obviously, they have struggled against the Penguins this season. The largest difference in score was 6-3 on March 27th. 

In order for a blue and orange win, Maty B can’t pass the puck directly to the opposing team. That doesn’t bode well. He also can’t take completely unnecessary penalties for high sticking and tripping. He’s a dangerous offensive player but he can’t do much from timeout. 

On paper, this team is beautifully structured with plenty of speed and big bodies spread throughout the lineup. However, it takes them a while to find their legs and by the time they do, it’s too late. Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are regularly the most elite defensive squad on the ice. Two years ago, they baffled Sidney Crosby. He finished the series with one assist and a -4 rating in the four games. 

Pitt Takes it Home: 

As previously stated, this has been a Pittsburgh-dominated season series. If they can get in the Isles’ heads and control the game from the very start, it won’t be hard to sweep. They’ve had an incredible second half to their season and the momentum they have will be hard to beat. 

The Pick: 

There’s no denying both of these teams are very good at what they do. If Pittsburgh can find some consistency in the net, they’ll be a force to be reconned with. If the Islanders can continue to be faster and stronger in the zone, they will also be very hard to beat. I’ve seen both of these teams play each other as well as the rest of the division and unfortunately, I’m going to have to say undecided for this series. (I really want to say New York but I know better by now)

structure of the 2021 Stanley Cup Tournament is unique, and not in a good way. Between the disgruntled divisions, the elimination of wild cards, and the shortened season, the new tournament format may end up less enjoyable than previous postseasons. 

Oddly Specific prediction: I stole this idea from Vendetta’s Andrew McGuinness’ CAR vs. NSH preview and he stole it from Sean McIndoe at The Athletic.
In this series, Anthony Beauvillier will have at least one OT winner and Sorokin will have a start and a win in separate games.

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