By B.D. Gallof
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Well, here we are at the cusp of this short season -- though it was a long road for Islanders fans.
After plenty of joy and excitement, the Isles brought out the naysayers by losing three close games, falling to the No. 8 seed and matching up against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins.
Putting aside the panic among Islanders fans, there are a few items that make this opening-round series interesting:
-- There's no love lost between New York and Pittsburgh. Witness the slugfest from two seasons ago that rankled the NHL and Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux.
-- The Penguins rebuilt their team using the modern template, yet the Islanders haven't had Pittsburgh's luck in free agency or the draft lottery to grab two generational players in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
-- This is your prototypical David vs. Goliath story. Pittsburgh has been an offensive powerhouse all season, despite a myriad of injuries, while the Isles are just beginning to reap the benefits of their rebuild.
OK, so we have an array of storylines and reasons to be interested in this series. But what's to stop Pittsburgh, a team that's won three of four games against the Islanders this season, with wiping the ice with this young group?
Not much, but let's get into some variables that might make it interesting from New York's side of the matchup:
-- The Islanders need to be competitive and remain within one goal in each game. It's a recipe for success. The Isles haven't lost a game by more than a goal since late March. If the Isles remain close, each game will be theirs to steal.
-- Stay out of the penalty box. It's simple, but won't be an easy do. Pittsburgh has a great power play; the Islanders' penalty kill has come back down to earth.
-- The 5-on-5 play has been an issue for the Islanders, though it finally improved during their last stretch. It MUST continue or else this will be a short series. The Penguins' 5-on-5 has been one of the best in the NHL. The Isles have to match it.
-- The Pens' penalty kill really hasn't been that good. The Islanders have to get under Pittsburgh's skin, cause penalties and then take advantage of power plays. That's the key to remaining close or grabbing a lead.
-- The Islanders haven't had much trouble scoring this season. The second line coming alive was key to nabbing a playoff spot. It must be built upon, and it has to start with their star, John Tavares, a clear Hart Trophy candidate. But even more importantly, the deeper lines must create offensive chances and come through with goals.
-- Defense is the Islanders' glaring weakness. It could be a nightmare against Pittsburgh's hot offense unless New York minimizes giveaways. The Isles should keep it simple: with little room for mistakes, replicate the game when they walloped the Pens 6-1, short-circuiting the offense.
-- Finally, the most important piece of all: the goalie. Evgeni Nabokov was blamed for years as the reason the Sharks weren't able to lift the Cup, yet without him they haven't done much better. In fact, his stats in the playoffs are quite solid. "Nabby," as a key source told me, "must, must come up big."
How to call this series? Well, logic says it's Pittsburgh's to lose. The Isles need a lot of things to come together to make this an even push.
That said, the Pens have a few question marks and flaws to be exploited:
-- Marc-Andre Fleury has unraveled in the past. The Isles must find way to get to him.
-- Crosby's health remains question mark. But even without him, the Penguins are powerful. With him at 90-to-100 percent, it might be a quick series.
-- The Penguins' penalty kill ranks 25th in the NHL, and must be exploited by the Islanders' 11th-best power play. Without power play goals, this series is lost. That said, the Islanders' 21st-ranked penalty kill can't see much ice time. And when on the ice, they need to stave off the league's second-best power play unit.
If New York exploits Pittsburgh's weaknesses, this series can go to six or seven games, giving the Isles a shot at pulling off an unbelievable upset. But let's face facts. The Islanders just aren't there yet.
This will likely go to the Pens in five games.
Power play advantage: Penguins. (Very dangerous here.)
Penalty kill advantage: Islanders.
Goalies: Fleury had the better year on paper. Nabokov has been hotter at even strength. Head-to-head: Nabokov vs. Penguins: 0.893 save pct., 3.04 GAA; Fleury vs. Isles 0.882 save pct., 3.60 GAA; advantage: Nabokov. Playoffs: Nabokov: 0.913 save pct, 2.29 GAA; Fleury: 0.904 save pct, 2.68 GAA; advantage: Nabokov.
Hey, we'll take it. That should tell you how key the goalies will be in this series.
ATTENTION: Access will be limited for Sunday's game at the Coliseum. There will be street closures due to the Long Island marathon. Check out the Islanders' official site for more information.
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