By Sarah Kwak
Jan. 29: Islanders 4, Penguins 1
Feb. 05: Penguins 4, Islanders 2
March 10: Penguins 6, Islanders 1
March 22: Penguins 4, Islanders 2
March 30: Penguins 2, Islanders 0
Penguins: C Sidney Crosby (broken jaw, day-to-day); D Brooks Orpik (lower body, day-to-day)
Pittsburgh’s keys to victory
It’s a testament to coach Dan Bylsma that the Penguins ran away with the Eastern Conference title despite having so many of their star players struggle with injuries this season. Sidney Crosby hasn’t played since March, and defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin each sat out at least 14 games. Evgeni Malkin played just 31 games and James Neal missed eight with a concussion earlier this month. But this team has been buoyed by a wealth of secondary scoring from the likes of Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, each of whom broke the 20-goal mark in 48 games, giving the Penguins the league’s most productive offense. That offense got even better by adding Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow at the trade deadline. When healthy, the front lines are an intimidating force, and with a corps of skillful defensemen, the Penguins are sure to spend lots of time in the offensive zone. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been shaky in years past, but he was in net when Pittsburgh won the Cup in 2009. These Penguins are built to last.
New York’s keys to victory
Up against the imposing Pittsburgh offense, the Islanders look pretty anemic (though to be fair, no team is stacked like Pittsburgh). But they’ve defied low expectations all season, earning their first playoff berth since 2007 before the Capitals, Rangers or Senators qualified for the tournament. The Isles are used to tight games, having played 20 that were decided by one goal and another 14 that were sealed with empty-netters. Center John Tavares, who reached a new level in his game with a team-leading 28 goals and 47 points, has a knack for coming through in the clutch. His chemistry with winger Matt Moulson, who picked up assists on all but nine of Tavares’ goals, will be a key force for the Islanders’ offense. Though the team doesn’t stand out in any one particular area — it ranked 11th in power play percentage, 21st in penalty killing, seventh in goals-for and 21st in goals-against — the Isles have balance in their lines, a hard-working, experienced group of defensemen and a capable veteran goalie in Evgeni Nabokov. No doubt, they will need to be at their best in order to keep Pittsburgh’s potent offense in check.
Pittsburgh in five: The Penguins have the better team, top to bottom, and they should make fairly quick work of the Isles, who overachieved this season. The 22-year-old Tavares will make his playoff debut and should learn a great deal from the experience, but up against a team like Pittsburgh, it will be a short one. The Pens haven’t lost more than two games in a row all season, and after welcoming back injured pieces like Martin and Neal at the end of the season, they are in prime position to make a long run through the playoffs.