It’s a (Playoff) Hockey Night in Pittsburgh!
Let’s be honest, this is not a phrase that even the most die-hard Pens fan thought they would hear for the 15th consecutive year. In an already abnormal regular season, the Penguins increased the crazy: GMJR walked away after seven games, never having a fully healthy line up for weeks in a row, and a moderate dose of goaltending questions. However, the Pens overcame all that adversity and captured the the Mass Mutual East Division.
That division title sets up for a rematch of the 2019 first round series with the New York Islanders. Of the 3 potential opponents, the Islanders are arguably the preferred match up. While Pittsburgh had the advantage during the regular season with a 6-2 record, this series will not be the cake walk that it may appear on paper.
Having the home ice advantage adds an extra edge to the Penguins, not only in this series, but throughout the entire playoffs. Although it was a shortened season, their 22-4-2 home record was best in the NHL. With the Pennsylvania increasing indoor event capacity to 50% on May 17, this means even more fans can fill PPG Paints Arena for game 2 and beyond. The team with the second-best home record this season? That would be the Islanders, who were 21-4-3 at the Coliseum.
In the head-to-head matchups this season, the Penguins outscored the Islanders 25-19 which boils down to scoring just over 3 and allowing around 2.4 goals each game. This means that the expected stater, Jarry, better be more of the second-half net minder then the one that began the season. While Jarry did end the season with a 2.75 GAA and a .909 save percentage, the Islander’s Varlamov is a likely Vezina candidate with is 2.04 GAA and .929 save percentage. The Islanders are almost invincible when scoring first (23-2-2), so the Pens better light that lamp first!
This leads into the x-factor and players to watch for both teams.
The Pens are finally fully healthy, and this does not bode well for many teams as they are arguably one of the deepest teams in the post season. With Geno, Tanev, Rodrigues, and Matheson all returning from injuries, the Islanders will have a hard time matching the depth the Penguins have at their disposal.
Keep an eye on Jeff Carter too. While the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh was of the ho-hum type, he has scored 9 of his 17 goals in his 13 games with the Pens (including his 4 -goal performance against Buffalo). While Carter isn’t a make or brake performance player, he is definitely a sleeper candidate on a solid 3rd line.
As mentioned above, goaltending is going to be key for the Islanders to make this a series. If Varlamov can continue his regular season form, he gives the Islanders a chance. This is extremely important as the Islanders stumbled their way through the end of the season.
Don’t forget the rookie, Oliver Wahlstrom. Over his 44 games, he has 21 points (12G, 9A), and earned half of those points on the power-play. While Palmieri will be closely watched, Wahlstrom has a chance to make a difference in this series.
I don’t think this will be a walk in the park for the Pens, but I don’t believe there will be a repeat of 2019. The Pens have too much momentum and depth this year, along with proof that they can battle through anything and still be standing.
Prediction: Pens in 6.