The Pittsburgh Penguins had an extraordinary regular season and enter the 2013 NHL playoffs as the favorites to win the Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champions.
Pittsburgh's opponent in Round 1 is the New York Islanders, who are making their first postseason appearance since the 2006-07 season. The Penguins won the season series, 4-1, and outscored the Islanders 17-9.
As the top seed in the playoffs and a team that dominated its competition throughout the regular season, Pittsburgh will be under immense pressure to reach the Stanley Cup Final. That journey will start on Wednesday when they host the Islanders in Game 1 of the first round at the Consol Energy Center.
Let's look at a complete preview of this Penguins versus Islanders first-round matchup, including players to watch, key storylines, player breakdowns and a series prediction.
The Penguins barely missed out on the President's Trophy, but you couldn't have asked for a better regular season performance from this team. They finished first in goals scored, 12th in goals against, second in power-play percentage and 25th in penalty killing.
Even though key players such as No. 1 center Sidney Crosby, superstar forward Evgeni Malkin, No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang and top-four blueliner Paul Martin missed a combined 56 games due to injuries, this team still won games consistently.
Pittsburgh won all of its games in March (15-0) and ended the season with 23 wins in its final 27 games. However, the highlight of the team's season was its activity around the trade deadline.
General manager Ray Shero acquired top-six winger Jarome Iginla, veteran forward Brenden Morrow, talented center Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Douglas Murry before the April 3 trade deadline to strengthen his team's roster and add playoff experience. With all of this talent, the Penguins are under the most pressure of all the teams in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup.
New York Islanders
Many hockey fans expected the Islanders to finish at the bottom of the Atlantic Division for the sixth straight year, but to its credit, this team played with the hunger and determination needed to make the playoffs in an intense shortened season.
New York finished the season with a 16-6-5 record to clinch a playoff spot after playing mediocre hockey for the first half of the year.
The highlight of the season for the Islanders was the emergence of John Tavares as a legitimate NHL superstar. He led the team in scoring with 47 points (28 goals, 19 assists) in 48 games and will likely be one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy.
After years of disappointment, many young Islanders fans on Long Island will finally get to experience playoff hockey at the Nassau Coliseum. As a team with a bright future and a lot of good young players/prospects, this series will be the beginning of many postseason battles that New York will have over the next few years.
The biggest storyline surrounding the Penguins is the return of Sidney Crosby to the lineup after missing the entire month of April (12 games) recovering from a broken jaw.
The superstar center practiced with the Penguins earlier this week (per the team), but there has been no official announcement on when he will join his teammates in real game action.
Pittsburgh has scored three goals per game without Crosby in the lineup, which is impressive, but this team is much tougher to defend when he's on the ice. The 25-year-old forward led the NHL in scoring for most of the season with 56 points (15 goals, 41 assists) despite missing a quarter of the year with an injury. His goal scoring, creativity, high hockey IQ and playmaking skill makes him the most difficult player in the NHL to shut down.
The Penguins will be favored against the Islanders with or without Crosby, but not having him in the lineup could help New York extend the series and prevent Pittsburgh from getting extra rest before the second round.
Another storyline to follow with the Penguins is how their team chemistry is affected by all of these injured players returning to the lineup.
When Crosby comes back, Jokinen will no longer be the first line center, which means he will have new linemates and a smaller role in the offense. This won't be an easy adjustment to make, especially for a player that has been in Pittsburgh for less than a month.
Changing lines and making defensive pairing adjustments in the middle of a playoff series is not a comfortable situation for a coach, so it will be interesting to see if chemistry becomes a concern for the Penguins in Round 1.
New York Islanders
Success on the Road
One of the keys to the Islanders' success this season was their remarkable play on the road. They finished 14-6-4 away from the Nassau Coliseum and tied the Penguins for the fewest regulation defeats on the road.
Starting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov had an amazing 14-3-3 road record, which will give his team plenty of confidence when it travels to Pittsburgh for Games 1 and 2 of this series.
Previous Playoff History with Pittsburgh
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was the 1992-93 Patrick Division Finals when the Islanders upset Mario Lemieux and the favored Penguins in seven games.
Pittsburgh went on an NHL record 17-game winning streak that season, but New York found ways to win in a very competitive series against one of the greatest teams that didn't win the Stanley Cup.
Will the Islanders pull off a similar upset in 2013?
Jarome Iginla, Pittsburgh Penguins
For the first time in four years, Iginla will be in the playoffs. In the 13 games he played with the Penguins during the regular season, the 35-year-old forward tallied 11 points (five goals and six assists).
Since this could be one of the final chances for him to win the first Stanley Cup in his career, it will be interesting to see how the veteran winger handles the pressure.
Iginla's career playoff numbers (49 points in 54 games) are fantastic, which means he will be expected to produce offensively on a consistent basis in the playoffs, especially if the team's goaltending struggles.
No player in this year's playoffs will be more hungry for a championship than Iginla.
John Tavares, New York Islanders
Tavares will participate in the playoffs for the first time in his young career, and it will be awesome to watch how he handles the pressure and expectations he will face over the next few weeks.
The great players elevate their game in the playoffs, and there's no reason to believe that Tavares will fail to produce offensively in this series.
He tallied 47 points in 48 games this season and finished third among all players with 28 goals scored. Tavares put up 22 points in the team's last 26 games, and the Islanders went 15-5-6 in that span to earn enough points for a playoff berth. Without his incredible offensive production from the start of March, New York would probably be watching the postseason from home.
For the Islanders to have any chance of extending this series to six or seven games, Tavares has to dominate offensively and carry his team.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
No player will impact the Penguins' chances of winning the Stanley Cup more than starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
He was one of the team's most disappointing players in last year's first-round series defeat to the rival Philadelphia Flyers, and he must play at a much higher level for Pittsburgh to make it back to the Cup Final for the first time since 2008-09.
Even though he does have a championship ring, Fleury has been far from reliable in the postseason for much of his NHL career.
Fleury had a good regular season with a 22-8-0 record, a 2.37 GAA and a .917 save percentage. He wasn't dominant, but his consistency was encouraging.
Pittsburgh has the highest-scoring offense in the NHL, so Fleury won't have to be perfect for the majority of the playoffs, but he must be consistent and give his team a chance to win each game.
Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders
Nabokov revived his career in 2013 with a stellar second half of the season to help the Islanders reach the playoffs. He finished the year with a 23-11-7 record, a 2.50 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
The Russian goaltender has 80 games of playoff experience, which is by far the most of any player on New York's roster.
However, he has struggled multiple times in his NHL career to carry his regular-season success into the playoffs. Nabokov was the starting goaltender on many of the talented San Jose Sharks teams in the 2000s that were Stanley Cup contenders but made just one Western Conference Finals appearance.
The Islanders need a near-perfect series from Nabokov to upset the Penguins and earn a trip to the second round.
The biggest mismatch in this series is the Penguins' power play versus the Islanders' penalty kill. Special teams plays a huge role in every playoff series, and if the Islanders continue to struggle on the penalty kill, the Penguins will sweep this series with ease.
Pittsburgh had the second-best power play in the regular season, and the amount of talent that head coach Dan Bylsma can put on the ice in situations where his team has the man advantage is incredible.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal make up the Penguins' first power-play unit, which is arguably the most difficult trio for a team to defend on the penalty kill. If the Penguins don't have much success with that group, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and Iginla will be waiting for their opportunity to feature on the power play.
No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang, who tied for the league lead in scoring among defenseman with 38 points, also makes a huge impact on the power play with his playmaking ability and powerful point shot.
With this kind of depth, it's no surprise that Pittsburgh had six players with 12 or more power-play points.
The Islanders finished the season 21st in penalty killing and allowed five power-play goals in their final six matchups. If there is no improvement in this area of its game, New York will be swept.
The Penguins will eliminate the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs and reach the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time since the 2009-10 season if the following things happen:
- Marc-Andre Fleury plays well consistently and prevents the league's seventh-highest scoring offense from dominating.
- Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik use their size, strength and defensive skill to shut down the small, skilled forwards in the Islanders' top six.
- Pittsburgh's power play is effective
- The Penguins don't allow the Islanders to believe they can win this series. Upsets happen when young teams are confident, and the best way for Pittsburgh to prevent this is to win the first two games at home.
The Islanders will complete a historic upset of the Penguins and reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the 1992-93 season if:
- New York shuts down the Pittsburgh power play
- The Islanders win one of the first two games at Consol Energy Center
- John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes outplay the Penguins' top line of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis
- Evgeni Nabokov plays a near-perfect series and gives his teammates a boost of confidence
The return of playoff hockey on Long Island will be a great experience for Islanders fans and a positive situation for the NHL, but it won't last for long.
The Penguins have more scoring depth and a better blue line than the Islanders, as well as a more reliable goaltender. They are also a determined group of veteran players, some of whom are hungry for the first Stanley Cup championship of their careers.
With a lot more talent and playoff experience than New York, it would be shocking if Pittsburgh needed more than five games to win this series.
Prediction: Pittsburgh wins 4-0