It’s a clash of history vs. the future, and a clash of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ world-class but aging core vs. the New York Islanders’ staunch defensive scheme when these East Division teams meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Game 1 is Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Two years ago, the Islanders swept the Penguins in the first round of the postseason. But this season, featuring a lineup with a mix of veterans and young talent, Pittsburgh went 6-2 against New York and won the division.
After being swept by New York in 2019 and then stumbling through a stunning loss to Montreal in the qualifying round of the COVID-19-altered playoffs in 2020, the Penguins’ three franchise players — centers Sidney Crosby, 33, and Evgeni Malkin, 34, and defenseman Kris Letang, 34 — are hungrier than ever to win their third Stanley Cup together.
“Do we think about our age and the fact that it’s one more chance? Yes, of course,” Letang said. “Every time you enter that dance for the playoffs, it’s a chance, and you might not see another one, so you have to treat it like it’s the last one.”
Pittsburgh has the NHL’s longest active streak of postseason appearances, 15, and the three core players have been the catalysts.
“We’ve been fortunate to share a lot of playoff games together,” said Crosby, who led the Penguins with 24 goals and 62 points this season. “I think you try to cherish every opportunity.”
The Islanders’ top scorers are Matt Barzal (45 points) and Josh Bailey (35 points), but for the Penguins to get past their opening series for the first time in three years, they will have to continue to solve New York’s clogging, cloying defensive scheme, a trademark of any team coached by Barry Trotz.
“They put you in a position to force the play,” Letang said. “That’s when they counter. We’ve been able to minimize turnovers, put pucks deeper, bring a heavy forecheck … try to play deep in their zone. That’s key.”
The Islanders are especially concerned about slowing Crosby, who has 39 goals and 83 assists in 75 career games against them.
“It’s a tough job to do,” said New York’s Ryan Pulock. He and Adam Pelech figure to be the most common defensive pairing against Crosby.
“He’s a world-class player, and he’s been one of the best players in this league for a lot of years. It’s not an easy task. We’ve just got to play hard, defend hard and be smart.”
It’s not just Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust who concern the Islanders.
“You can’t just focus on one line; they’ve got three, four lines that are capable of scoring,” Trotz said. “You don’t really get a break when you have a lineup like that. We’re going to have to be detailed in our defensive game. We’re going to have to be on the right side of the puck. And we’re going to have to make good decisions with the puck.”
Both teams brought in help at the trade deadline — veteran forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac for the Islanders, and forward Jeff Carter for the Penguins.
Pittsburgh went through a long list of injuries, including to key players, but finally seems healthy with the possible exception of backup goaltender Casey DeSmith.
The Islanders lost captain Anders Lee to season-ending knee surgery in March.
–Field Level Media