The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to face off against the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2021 playoffs. These two teams have history with each other. In the 2019 playoffs, the Islanders upset Pittsburgh not with just a series win, but with a 4-0 sweep. With their first meeting on Sunday, May 16, there are numerous keys to success Pittsburgh has to utilize in order to rewrite history and defeat the Islanders.
The Stars Have To Shine
The Penguins have some elite talent amongst their ranks. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel are at the top of the list of notable players. Crosby and Guentzel are like two peas in a pod, with Guentzel seemingly able to bury any of Crosby’s immaculate passes into the back of the net. On the powerplay, Malkin and Letang have been an incredible duo. Malkin’s one-timer shots along with Letang’s adept passing ability has been frustrating goalies for quite some time. However, this star-power hasn’t been able to transition into the playoffs the past few years.
In the 2019 playoffs against the Islanders, Malkin led the team in scoring with three points in four games. However, Guentzel, Crosby and Letang had little to no impact on the series. Each of these elite players had only one point each, undoubtedly contributing to their team’s abysmal performance. Even in the 2020 qualifying round, Crosby, Guentzel, and right wing Bryan Rust had only three points each. Malkin only put up one point, but Letang couldn’t find his way on the scoresheet. This has to change for the upcoming series.
The first two lines on Pittsburgh’s roster should have no problem putting the puck in the back of the net. If the lines stay the same as they have, Crosby is going to center Guentzel and Rust on the first line. On the second line, Malkin will center Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen, two very capable wings. To put it simply, the stars need to play like this is their last shot at the Stanley Cup. There can be no lollygagging on the ice. The stars have to have 100 percent intensity every time they touch the ice.
Possibility of MCG Line
The depth of this roster is showing similarities between the back-to-back Stanley Cup winning rosters in 2016 and 2017. Pittsburgh lacked depth in their past two playoff runs. The top two lines, although their performance was subpar, were really the only producers for the Penguins on the scoresheet. This year, things are looking different.
The third line is looking fairly similar to the famed “HBK” line in the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs. In 2016 and 2017, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, while looking like an awkward combination, lit up the scoresheet. For example, in 2016 the HBK line scored an incredible 15 goals in 24 games. This year, instead of the HBK line, it looks like the Penguins could run with the “MCG” line. Although it may not have the same ring as HBK does, they’ve been on fire lately.
The MCG line consists of Jared McCann, Jeff Carter and Frederick Gaudreau. This line’s chemistry is incredible as they’ve contributed to six of the last nine goals the Penguins have scored. However, with Evan Rodrigues returning to the lineup from an ankle injury, Gaudreau’s roster spot may be in jeopardy. Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh’s head coach, will have to make some decisions when it comes to the lines for the first game.
The Fourth Line Hustles
The fourth line, while unable to put up the points that the other three lines do, are unmatched when it comes to their defensive capabilities. The fourth line is centered by Teddy Blueger with Zach Aston-Reese on the left wing and Brandon Tanev on the right wing. Although Colton Sceviour has had to pick up Tanev’s slack in the wake of his injury, Tanev is undoubtedly itching to get back into the lineup with his line mates.
Tanev’s innate ability to wear the opposition down with his crushing body checks along with Aston-Reese and Blueger’s defensive play makes the fourth line a formidable opponent. This line will prove more effective against the Islanders’ first and second lines. If Blueger’s line continues to play as they have all season, they will be an invaluable asset in Pittsburgh’s playoff run.
The Defense Has To Defend
Pittsburgh’s defense has been under scrutiny as of late. Kris Letang has been under fire for his apparent lackluster defensive capabilities, so much so that fans have wanted him to be traded on numerous occasions. Marcus Pettersson and John Marino have had off-years with questionable play. Furthermore, there was plenty of controversy surrounding the acquisitions of Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson in the offseason on account of their questionable play. If there is any time to prove doubters wrong about the defense, it is this series.
To put it plainly, the defense has to improve their defensive play. The Islanders have plenty of firepower in their lineup, with Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle leading the team in goals. When these three players are on the ice, Pittsburgh has to cover them any time the Islanders enter their offensive zone. Brian Dumoulin, arguably one of Pittsburgh’s more defensively-sound defensemen, has to show the defense how it’s done.
If the Penguins properly utilize their assets, there is a good chance they could win this series. Giving the first two lines plenty of ice time will, ideally, lead to a better offensive outcome. If not, then they should put the new MCG line out. Any time the Islanders have their best scorers on the ice, the fourth line should also be out to wear them down. Lastly, if the defensemen are able to tighten their defensive play, Pittsburgh should have no problem winning this series. If not, then the Penguins could be in trouble.