These two are no strangers, and there’s a certain one of them looking for revenge.
The New York Islanders entered the spring of 2019 as postseason underdogs in their first-round matchup with the Penguins on the heels of a regular season no one saw coming. Despite owning the superior regular-season record and therefore home ice advantage, oddsmakers stuck with the Penguins.
A game one overtime loss was as close as the Pens got in that series as the Isles unceremoniously swept the favorites out of the first round. A lot’s changed since then, but here they are again two years later getting back together with the Penguins once again favored, only this time due to their superior regular-season record, and home ice advantage, although without fans.
Indeed, the Penguins were crowned East Division champions thanks to the second tie-breaker of regulation + overtime wins over the Capitals who tied them with 77 points and 29 regulation wins.
These two clubs got together eight times this season with the Penguins winning six of those games and six of the last seven, in fact.
That said, it’s now a whole new season and nothing accomplished through the 56-game regular season matters at this point. So, let’s check out some series odds with a preview and a prediction for not only who wins the series, but in how many games.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
Islanders vs. Penguins NHL Playoff Series Odds
- Islanders (+125)
- Penguins (-145)
Islanders vs. Penguins NHL Playoff Series Preview
The Islanders established themselves as a premier defensive team in this league the second Barry Trotz was fired as head coach prior to the 2018-19 season and that tradition continued in spades this season.
The Islanders finished the season with the league’s second-ranked defense while allowing just 2.23 goals per game while their 83.7% penalty killing rate was good enough for a share of sixth alongside the Los Angeles Kings. Like in previous seasons, the metrics didn’t quite add up to the production, at least in terms of scoring chances yielded.
The Islanders ranked 20th in terms of scoring chances against/60, but also 12 in terms of expected goals against/60. They did limit the high-danger chances at the league’s sixth-best rate and their 1.97 goals against/60 at 5v5 is more or less in line with their 2.07 expected mark, as per Natural Stat Trick. When you add in the dynamite penalty kill you get a very strong defense all-around.
They didn’t exactly defend at their finest against these Pens this season, however. The Penguins averaged 3.50 goals per game with the Isles this season, and that’s with being shutout once in those eight games, so the number is an even 4.00 in the other seven contests.
It’s certainly an underrated and unheralded group of defenders with Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield, Andy Greene and Noah Dobson the top six entering the postseason. Certainly they got the job done as part of Trotz’s defensive structure, but you certainly don’t look at those names and see a top-two defense, but it’s been that way since the veteran head coach took over.
Once again, the Islanders were recipients of some excellent goaltending behind that blueline that didn’t give up many dangerous scoring opportunities this season.
It was a Russian duo getting the job done as a veteran and rookie tandem teamed up to put forth one of the best save percentages in the league.
Veteran Semyon Varlamov enjoyed a career-year that has him firmly in the Vezina Trophy conversation. The former Capital and Avalanche netminder turned in a spectacular 2.04 GAA and .929 Sv% with seven shutouts across 36 games played, going 19-11-4 in the process. He posted three straight shutouts entering the month of May and enters the postseason riding a .947 Sv% for the month of April and a .941 mark here in May as he certainly seems ready to go for the postseason despite suffering “a little strain” in a start against the Bruins on Monday. He is expected to get the nod for Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.
Varlamov wasn’t at his best against the Penguins this season, however, turning in a 2.86 GAA and .897 Sv% in seven appearances with them, going 1-3-2 in that time.
If a production slip for Varlamov is in the cards, a rookie backup in Ilya Sorokin will be ready to take over. After dominating the KHL with some eye-popping numbers at a young age for a few seasons in his native Russia, Sorokin made the transition overseas for the 2021 season, posting a 2.17 GAA and .918 Sv% with three shutouts in 22 appearances, going 13-6-3 in the process. The 25-year-old was lit up for five goals in his first NHL game but was largely consistent from there on out, allowing three or more goals just four more times in 20 starts.
Sorokin scuffled with the Pens as well in two outings this season, posting a 2.78 GAA and .862 Sv% while splitting those two games 1-1-0.
Nonetheless, this duo combined for a .931 Sv% at 5v5 this season, good for the third-best mark in the NHL.
By all accounts, the Islanders should defend well enough to win in this series despite the regular-season results, the question is going to be if they can score enough.
The overall offense was better this season than it had been over the last two seasons with Trotz behind the bench, but they still ranked 20th with 2.71 goals per game on the season and 21st with an 18.8% power-play clip to boot. That said, it’s not as if they didn’t generate opportunities.
The Islanders actually ranked sixth in both scoring chances/60 and high-danger chances/60 while ranking eighth in expected goals for/60 at 5v5 this season. The weak power play didn’t help and their 2.47 goals for/60 at 5v5 was actually above their 2.24 expected mark, however, so this offense appears to deserve their output for the season.
It’s an offense that was dealt a big blow when captain Anders Lee went down with a season-ending ACL injury. They did trade for winger Kyle Palmieri and veteran pivot Travis Zajac to bolster the forward group, but that duo struggled mightily to produce in their new digs, recording just six combined points across 30 games. It’s not an offensive-style system, so it could take some getting used to, but the time to produce is now or never.
The club averaged just 2.38 goals per game across their eight games with the Pens this season, so they’ll need to crank up the offense a couple notches if they want to play into June.
The Pens were my value pick to win the East Division at +500 and they delivered, albeit just barely. As usual, they did while battling through plenty of injuries, mostly to their defense although Evgeni Malkin missed significant time again this season.
Nonetheless, their offense showed up this season after some offseason changes that were designed to offer more speed and skill to the group. The Penguins would end up finishing the regular season ranked second with 3.45 goals per game while their power play roared back after a slow start and finished fourth at 23.7%.
Now, the underlying metrics didn’t exactly add up. The Penguins ranked 20th in terms of scoring chances for/60 at 5v5 and 24th in terms of high-danger chances for/60. They also finished 24th in expected goals/60 at 5v5 with their 2.73 actual mark sitting well above their 2.09 expected mark. A fifth-ranked 9.38% 5v5 shooting rate helps, but they capitalized on their opportunities with a 21.94% shooting rate on their high-danger chances, good for the best mark in the NHL this season.
I mean, a high shooting rate is to be expected with the talent up front here with the Penguins, talent that extends into their bottom six now that Jeff Carter resides as the third-line center after a deadline deal with the Kings. Carter caught fire after the trade, tallying nine goals and 11 points over 14 games with his new club, including a four-goal effort in his second-to-last regular-season contest.
The Pens appear well-equipped to challenge this Islanders defense as they did throughout the regular season.
The Pens dealt with injuries to just about every blueline regular this season. In fact, 12 different players skated on that blueline this season as the team did not have a single defenseman reach the full 56 games this season, although Kris Letang came awfully close with 55 games played.
Despite the variety of ailments to the back end, the Penguins finished the season ranked 13th with 2.77 goals against per game on the season, a very good number considering their penalty kill ranked 27th at just 77.4%.
That must mean their 5v5 defense was strong, and the advanced numbers mostly tell that story. At 5v5, the Penguins ranked seventh in scoring chances against/60 and 13th in expected goals against/60. Their 2.17 goals against/60 was nearly identical to their 2.15 expected mark, so they more or less deserved their defensive fate at even strength.
Most importantly right now, it’s a healthy group. Their top-six defensemen in Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Michael Matheson, Cody Ceci, Marcus Pettersson and John Marino are healthy. It’s not the flashiest group of names around, but it’s a group that got the job done in front of their goaltenders this season and one that held the Islanders to that aforementioned 2.38-goals-per-game average in their eight regular-season meetings.
Casey DeSmith is on the shelf right now with a lower-body injury, but the crease for these playoffs was always going to belong to Jarry as he bounced back in a big way following a disastrous start to the season.
Jarry posted an ugly 3.92 GAA and .859 Sv% across six starts in the month of January, even losing some time to DeSmith while he regrouped. That said, he turned in a much-improved 2.62 GAA and .915 Sv% in February, and a 2.33 GAA and .928 Sv% in the month of March. His production dipped some in April to a 2.66 GAA and .911 Sv% and scuffled some in his final two starts with an .875 Sv% in that time.
So, his year-end results of a 2.75 GAA and .909 Sv% aren’t exactly all that accurate as he has been excellent since that rough six-start stretch to begin his season. He went 25-9-3 on the season and also posted a 2.41 GAA and .917 Sv% across six starts with the Islanders this season, going 5-1-0 in the process.
Barring a postseason meltdown, Jarry will be going toe-to-toe with Varlamov in this series.
Islanders vs. Penguins NHL Playoff Series Pick
The Islanders’ four-game sweep of the Penguins two years back isn’t lost on anyone remaining on these clubs from that time. The Pens are out for revenge, and the Islanders are looking for another first-round upset of their Metropolitan/East Division foe.
That said, I like the favorite here.
I mentioned in the opening that nothing from the regular season matters here, and most of the time that’s true. That said, the Penguins did dominate this season series, but that’s not the only regular-season record that matters to me here.
Looking at the home/road records here, it’s a huge advantage for the Penguins getting home ice here. They went 22-4-2 on home ice this season and just 15-12-1 on the road. The Islanders similarly dominated at home, going 21-4-3 in New York, but just 11-13-4 on the road. Sure, there aren’t any fans in the stands to jack of the home side, but there hasn’t been all season long and those records are awfully telling of where each team plays their best hockey.
I like the offensive advantage with the Penguins, and the Islanders just haven’t been able to generate offense in this matchup and their newcomers have had big-time trouble adapting to the new style of play. I like believe in Jarry to shut this group down in front of a Penguins defensive corps that played well despite rash of injuries throughout the season.
Give me the Penguins as the home favorites in this series.
Islanders vs. Penguins Exact Series Result Prediction
- Penguins 4-0 (+1000)
- Penguins 4-1 (+500)
- Penguins 4-2 (+425)
- Penguins 4-3 (+400)
- Islanders 4-0 (+1200)
- Islanders 4-1 (+750)
- Islanders 4-2 (+525)
- Islanders 4-3 (+500)
Obviously, I like the Penguins here, but those are the odds here in case your against me.
Series sweeps are rare, but the Islanders pulled off a rather stunning one just two years ago in this matchup. I don’t like a sweep in this series, but I actually believe the Penguins are back in the postseason for real after back-to-back disappointing postseason results over the last couple of seasons.
So, I’ll look for solid value here and look for the Penguins to win this one in five games at +500 odds.