First-round preview: Pens-Isles
You have to imagine that at least some of the excitement stemming from the New York Islanders' first playoff appearance in six years was dampened just a bit after their first-round opponent was determined at the 11th hour Sunday night. Yes, with Ottawa's win over Boston, the Islanders finished with the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, earning them the unenviable draw against the dominant Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pens steamrolled their way to the top of the East, with very little competition for the top seed as they finished the season with 72 points. What's even scarier? They did so while missing some of their top stars for significant stretches. Now the Penguins are getting closer to full strength, with all eyes on Sidney Crosby as he aims to return sometime during the playoffs.
But this isn't an Islanders team to be taken lightly. Led by 22-year-old center John Tavares, the Isles appear ready to turn the corner and finally give their fan base something to be excited about with a young squad that possesses skill, speed and energy in abundance heading into their first playoff appearance since 2007.
1. What's Sid's status?
Coach Dan Bylsma and his club have proved that even without some of their top contributors -- Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang -- the Penguins are still among the deepest teams in the league, but Pittsburgh operates on a whole new level with No. 87 in the lineup. Sidelined since suffering a broken jaw on March 30, Crosby began practicing Friday, but on Wednesday was ruled out of the playoff opener. The Islanders have to be hoping he takes his time to recover, considering the clip at which he was producing before he sustained the injury. In fact, it was only last week that Crosby's point total of 56 (15 goals, 41 assists) was eclipsed even though he has been shelved for a month. The former first overall pick, who still might win the Hart Trophy for the league's most valuable player, gives the Penguins a weapon that the Islanders simply cannot match or contain.
Consider this mind-blowing stat: Crosby has registered a whopping 75 points (20 goals, 55 assists) in 41 career games against the Islanders. The Penguins have expressed no desire to rush back the face of their franchise, and they might want to play it even safer should they feel confident they can dispatch the Islanders without him. If Crosby does return, Bylsma will have to discern the best way to ease him back into the lineup -- no easy task with the intensity level of the playoffs. But if Crosby is able to return, that will be the least of the Penguins' concerns.
2. Tavares steps it up
Crosby could very well ultimately take home the hardware, but Tavares might steal votes for the Hart Trophy race. The Isles' former first overall pick will certainly garner consideration as MVP for his part in leading the Islanders on a surprising run to the playoffs. Taking his game to the next level and proving he belongs among the handful of elite stars in this league, Tavares seemed to single-handedly will his team to wins, particularly during the club's rough patches. In only his fourth pro year, Tavares has become a leader both on and off the ice, and that has paid dividends for the Islanders. Playing on a line with Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes, Tavares led the team in scoring with 47 points and finished third in the league with 28 goals during a lockout-shortened 48-game regular season.
Regardless of whether the Isles can spoil the Penguins' Stanley Cup hopes, this experience will be an invaluable one for Tavares' development as a young player. Cloaked in relative obscurity during the beginning of his career, largely thanks to the team's struggles, Tavares is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. Now the whole league will get a glimpse of what he can do on the biggest stage.
3. Can the Isles get to the Pens?
The Penguins have very few weaknesses to exploit, especially with their remarkable organizational depth. But the Philadelphia Flyers found a way to disrupt their game in the first round last spring, and the Islanders must try to find vulnerabilities as well. The Flyers agitated the Pens and, similarly, the Isles must try to use their big bodies (Matt Martin, Colin McDonald, Jesse Joensuu) and their aggressive fourth-line guys (Casey Cizikas, Keith Aucoin) to bring physicality and edge to the affair. The Isles must also put pressure on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who fell apart against the Flyers last April, surrendering 26 goals in six games. Keep in mind, however, that Fleury has rebounded nicely with a strong season in which he has posted a 23-8-0 record, .916 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average. The Penguins also have veteran backup Tomas Vokoun backing up Fleury; Vokoun has recorded wins in his past three starts and finished the regular season with three shutouts.
4. Line matching will be key
At full strength, the Penguins are an absolute nightmare to contend against. With Pens GM Ray Shero as aggressive as ever at the trade deadline, Pittsburgh added the likes of Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow to the already intimidating cast of characters that includes Crosby, Neal, Malkin, Letang and Chris Kunitz. The Penguins' greatest strength is their balance and their ability to roll four lines. Isles coach Jack Capuano will try to get his second line of Josh Bailey-Frans Nielsen-Kyle Okposo out against Pittsburgh's top guns as much as possible, but that trio will have to be as good as -- or better than -- they were in the last month of the season for the Islanders to top the Pens. Young defensemen Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald will likely share the yeoman's work on the back end, while 37-year-old veteran Evgeni Nabokov will have to sustain his level of play against the league's top offense (3.38 goals per game) and second-ranked power play (24.7 percent).
5. Could ignorance be bliss?
This is either a strength or a weakness, depending on how you look at it, but while the Penguins boast a group of playoff-tested veterans who know what to expect of the grueling run, most of the Islanders have yet to experience their first taste of the postseason. Those newbies will learn quickly about the level of intensity required to compete at the next level, but on the whole, the Islanders enter the playoffs with very little by way of pressure and expectations. Although the Islanders might have been a sexy pick to upset the Capitals, maybe even the Canadiens, very few people will pick them against the Penguins. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh must bear the brunt of a top seed and the expectations that come along with it. Who will thrive under pressure? We'll find out soon.
• This won't be the lopsided series many people anticipate. The Islanders will surprise a few folks along the way. Ultimately, their lack of depth will sink their hopes of pulling off an upset, but the Isles won't be an easy out. Penguins in 6