Published January 13, 2015
Not only do the Pittsburgh Penguins enter the postseason with a stacked roster, as winners in 23 of their final 27 games and owners of the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but also with a chip on their shoulders.
This marks the Penguins seventh straight trip to the playoffs, but the club will do all it can to forget its sixth. That is because Pittsburgh did not make it out of the first round, falling in a wild six-game series to the Philadelphia Flyers in which it was outscored 30-26.
Jordan Staal, traded this past offseason to the Carolina Hurricanes, had six goals in the series and both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had eight points in the six games. However, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury posted a 4.63 goals against average and .834 save percentage as Pittsburgh failed to make it out of the conference quarterfinals for a second season in a row.
However, the Penguins are just four years removed from winning a Stanley Cup in 2009 over the Detroit Red Wings, who had bested the Penguins in the Finals the previous season.
Despite a lack of recent success, Pittsburgh is battle tested for the playoffs and Crosby doesn't think 2012 is on the team's mind.
"I don't think last year is something we've thought about too much. It's in the past, but definitely playoffs are why you play the game," the Pens captain said. "I think the way we played all year has prepared us. It's not like we have to turn a switch on. We feel confident in our game and we know what we have to do."
And with good reason. The Penguins only lost four games over the season's final two months, a span that began with a 15-0 March. Pittsburgh locked up the East's top seed on April 20, 11 days after clinching the Atlantic Division.
Pittsburgh led the league in scoring with 3.38 goals per game and had the second-best power play at 24.7 percent. That isn't surprised given the presence of Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang.
Crosby led the Penguins with 56 points, ending tied for third in the NHL despite missing the season's final 12 games due to a broken jaw suffered versus the New York Islanders on March 30. He returned to practice last Friday and could return to the Penguins lineup as early as Game 1 versus the Islanders.
Malkin (9 goals, 24 assists) and Neal (21G, 15A) both missed time with injury as well, as did Letang and fellow defenseman Paul Martin. However, all are back and ready for this series.
It didn't hurt that Penguins general manager Ray Shero added incredible depth before the trade deadline, bringing in forward Jarome Iginla, former Stars captain Brenden Morrow, winger Jussi Jokinen and big defender Douglas Murray in separate deals that cost his club only draft picks and prospects. That allows head coach Dan Bylsma the luxury to put Crosby, Malkin and Morrow on different lines.
The Penguins are so deep that they led the league in scoring despite Crosby and Malkin combining for only 24 goals. However, Kunitz, Neal and Pascal Dupuis all surpassed 20 goals, with Kunitz and Neal each scoring nine times on the power play.
But the playoffs are when Crosby and Malkin really shine. Crosby, the favorite to win the Hart Trophy before getting hurt, has 33 goals and 90 points in 68 postseason games, while Malkin has 32 goals and 81 points in the same amount of games.
Iginla, set to play in the postseason for the first time since 2009 with the Calgary Flames, has 28 goals and 21 assists in 54 playoff games.
And Shero added another playoff vet to the blue line in Murray, who saw plenty of action in the second season as a member of the San Jose Sharks. Letang, Martin, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, questionable for the start of the series due to a lower body injury, all log heavy minutes on defense.
Despite last season's struggles, Fleury has also had success in the playoffs. He is 43-32 in 75 career games with a 2.68 GAA and five shutouts while also winning a Cup.
However, as a whole the Penguins ranked 12th in the league with 2.48 goals per game allowed -- scoring nearly a goal more a night -- and was just 25th on the penalty kill (79.6 percent).
NEW YORK ISLANDERS (8th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 24-17-7
2012 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
(Sports Network) - The New York Islanders draw a pretty tough task as they attempt to win their first playoff series in 20 years.
The Islanders were one of the hottest teams down the stretch, going 11-2-4 over their last 17 games to close the regular season. However, they dropped three straight to conclude their schedule -- two of those in a shootout -- and as a result slipped to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference to set up a meeting with the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins.
But beggars can't be choosers and the Isles are just happy to be making their first postseason appearance since 2007. But odds are long for New York to win its first playoff series since beating the Washington Capitals and Penguins in the 1993 postseason before falling to the Montreal Canadiens in the conference finals.
But 2013 could serve as a coming out party for a number of Islanders; 16 in all set to make their postseason debuts.
Most eyes will be on center John Tavares, an excellent two-way player who led the Islanders with 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games. He wrapped his fourth NHL season since being taken first overall in the 2009 draft as a serious Hart Trophy candidate.
In addition to Tavares, a number of other key contributors will be seeing playoff action for the first time, including forwards Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey as well as defensemen Andrew MacDonald, who led the Isles in ice time at 23 minutes, 31 seconds per game, and Travis Hamonic.
"I've watched the playoffs every year since I was three years old," Tavares, born in 1990, told his club's website. "You're going to see the intensity and see how much playing for the Cup means to everybody. But I don't think we're really going to understand what the whole experience is like until we get there. We want to come out hard and not ease our way into it. There's so much importance on each and every game. It's going to be a heck of a ride and we need to get off to a good start."
But it could be the back end that gives New York a chance, starting with veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. The 37-year-old tied for fourth in the NHL with 23 wins to go along with a 2.50 goals against average and .910 save percentage.
Nabokov saw plenty of playoff action as a member of the San Jose Sharks, having appeared in 80 games while going 40-38 with a 2.29 GAA and seven shutouts.
New York may need Nabokov to steal a game -- or four -- to pull off the upset. The Islanders have the talent to score, ranking seventh in the NHL with 2.81 goals per game while ending in a tie for 10th on the power play (19.9 percent) but actually allowed one more goal (136) than they scored.
That could also make the experience of blueliners Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky invaluable as well. The two have combined to appear in 30 playoff games.
Up front, both Marty Reasoner and Brad Boyes have the most postseason minutes of any Isles forwards.
Boyes ranked third on the Isles with 35 points, behind Tavares and Moulson, who scored eight of his 15 goals on the power play. Speedster Michael Grabner is also one to watch after finishing second with 16 goals.
The Islanders drew first blood in the 2013 season series with a 4-1 victory in Pittsburgh on Jan. 29, but the final four encounters belonged to the Penguins by a 16-5 advantage.
Crosby logged nine assists in the five meetings, while Dupuis led the Penguins with five goals versus the Islanders. Kunitz added four goals and four assists, while Neal had three goals and six points. Malkin missed two of the games and had just one assist in the other three.
Backup Tomas Vokoun went 3-0 with a 0.90 GAA versus the Islanders this season and gave Fleury plenty of rest during the campaign.
Nabokov went 1-4 with a 3.04 GAA versus the Penguins this season, while Boyes and Grabner were the only two New York skaters with multiple goals in the series. Moulson (1G, 3A) and Nielsen (4A) both led the way with four points, while Tavares had a goal and an assist in the five games.
The Penguins are seeking their first ever playoff series victory over the Islanders, who have won all three of the previous matchups. However, all three series were pushed to the brink, including a best-of-five series meeting in the conference quarterfinals in 1982, when New York won its third of four straight Cups.
These clubs haven't met in the playoffs since the 1993 division finals.
This seems like a no-brainer for the Penguins to break through and beat the Isles in the postseason for the first time. Pittsburgh is just too deep, too talented and finally healthy enough to be considered the favorites for as long as it remains in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Penguins in 5