Penguins superstars Chris Junitz, James Neal and Evgeni Malkin.
With the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs having finally arrived, the Pittsburgh Penguins are poised to capture hockey’s grandest prize. They’re favorites to go all the way, but they need to get past their first-round matchup with the New York Islanders first.
The Penguins were favored last year, too. Instead, their campaign was short-lived because of poor defense and goaltending. They were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers six games into the postseason.
General manager Ray Shero has made great moves to address the glaring weaknesses from the 2012 playoffs. Those additions will prove vital against the Islanders and beyond.
Let’s take a look at the Penguins’ five keys to besting the Islanders.
Sidney Crosby celebrating a goal.
The Penguins proved to themselves this time last year that scoring goals isn’t enough to carry them deep in the playoffs.
Not that that isn’t the case, but outscoring the Islanders might be enough to make it to Round 2.
The Islanders defense and goaltending allows about 2.8 goals per game, which is 21st in the league. The Penguins head into the playoffs with a 3.4 goals-per-game average—good enough for best in the NHL.
Pittsburgh boasts some of the NHL’s best scoring depth. The talents of natural scorers like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal has been compounded by trade acquisitions. The dangerous duo of Malkin and Neal welcomed veteran Jarome Iginla with open arms.
Brenden Morrow is another acquisition who doesn’t score at the level of other Penguins but is able to chip in plenty of offense as a bottom-six forward. After an underwhelming season, former Carolina Hurricanes center Jussi Jokinen has also found a niche on the Penguins' roster.
Special teams can decide a series. For a recent example, ask Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals. His heroic overtime goal eliminated the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
Fast forward a week or so. Joel Ward took a high-sticking double-minor late in Game 5 versus the New York Rangers. The Rangers scored with 6.6 seconds left in the third to tie the game and then scored on the second power play to win the game in overtime. Washington lost the series in seven games.
A few power-play goals or crucial penalty kills could decide this series in a similar way.
The special teams battle clearly favors the Penguins. The Penguins boast the NHL’s second-best power play while the Islanders are barely killing 80 percent, making that squad 21st in the league.
The Penguins have so many scoring threats at even strength, let alone on the man advantage. Among them is James Neal. The former Dallas Star led the NHL in power-play goals last season with 18 goals.
With adept playmakers in Malkin and Crosby, along with Kris Letang up top, it’s hard to stop the Penguins’ hot power play.
At the same time, the Penguins should be cautious about giving the Islanders man-advantage opportunities. The Islanders are only converting on about a fifth of their opportunities, but the Penguins’ penalty kill has been subpar.
An important key to winning the special teams battle would be for more defensively minded blueliners to step up. Paul Martin and Douglas Murray need to play a shutdown role on the penalty kill.
Fleury shutting down a New Jersey Devil.
Marc-Andre Fleury’s performance will determine how far the Penguins go in the playoffs. That said, his play in net is key to the Penguins beating the Islanders.
Fleury started the last three games of the season for the Penguins. All three of those teams are not excluded from the postseason, yet Fleury only earned a win versus the Carolina Hurricanes. On top of that, Fleury allowed 10 goals between those last three starts.
That’s not quite the hot finish the Penguins were hoping for from their star netminder. Even so, with a few days of rest before their series begins on May 1, it’s likely Fleury will get the start in Game 1.
The main difference between this year and last year is that if Fleury falls apart, the Penguins have a veteran goalie to turn to. Tomas Vokoun has played 20 games in this abbreviated season, and the Penguins have shown they have no problem pulling Fleury and putting in Vokoun.
Big d-man Douglas Murray.
Up until the trade deadline was closing in, the only consistent hard-hitting players on the Penguins’ roster were Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke. Shero changed that.
By adding Brenden Morrow up front and Douglas Murray in the back end, the Penguins are a much tougher team than they were this time last year. They’re both large and powerful players who know how to use their size to wear down opponents.
Since joining the Penguins, Morrow and Murray have each averaged over two hits per game. Their physical contributions compound the countless hits totaled by Kunitz, Cooke and grinders Craig Adams and Tanner Glass.
When playing a best-of-seven series, an important strategy is exhausting the opposition throughout the course of the round.
Scoring can win a game, but physical hockey can win a series.
Standout young blueliner Simon Despres.
Pathetic defense in front of Fleury was another major contributing factor to the Penguins’ disappointing 2012 postseason.
A lot of things have changed since then.
Paul Martin’s defensive play is a 180-degree turn from what it was last year. He’s finally the reliable, top-two shutdown defenseman the Penguins are paying him $5 million to be. He’s chipping in offensively, too.
The rest of the Penguins defensemen are stepping up, too. Matt Niskanen is continuing to find his niche as a top-four utility defenseman who can backstop the Penguins in any situation. At 21 years old, Simon Despres is a young blueliner who, like Niskanen, fits in wherever coach Dan Bylsma needs him.
Mark Eaton is one of the few true stay-at-home defensemen on the Penguins’ roster. He’s a smart, reliable defenseman who makes all the right plays to keep the puck away from Fleury. Beyond that, his veteran presence is valuable to the younger players.
Shero’s acquisitions since last year will make an impact, too. At 6’3”, 245 pounds, Douglas Murray is a massive presence at the back end that adds plenty of strength to the lineup. Morrow, another midseason trade acquisition, is a power forward who also adds strength to the roster.
When the defensemen can’t handle everything John Tavares and the Islanders throw at them, the Penguins forwards will have to play well in their own zone.
Brandon Sutter is a prime example of how to play well in both zones. He backchecks, blocks shots and wins crucial faceoffs—all of which are valuable in the playoffs. His 28.6 shooting percentage against the Islanders this season is helpful, too.