Lacing Up: New York State Of Mind
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF periodically.
Matt Paul: The race to the finish was a frantic one for many teams, as it appeared neither the Montreal Canadiens nor the Boston Bruins wanted anything to do with the Eastern Conference’s second seed, while the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders all made convincing cases to drop to the eighth seed.
Fortunately for the Penguins, they don’t have to play all three teams in the first round, and instead will face the Islanders.
At first glance, Josh, this should be a cakewalk for the Penguins. We’re talking about a been-there-done-that Penguin squad loaded with a mix of skill, grit, and experience versus a baby-faced Islanders squad that few (if any) expected to make it to the dance. But the youth of the Islanders could be kryptonite to the Penguins.
First things first, what are your initial thoughts of this matchup?
Joshua Neal: Well, Matt, the REAL season truly starts on Wednesday for the Penguins. Many people inside and outside of the Penguins’ fan base aren’t shocked at all that Pittsburgh has made the playoffs and some aren’t even surprised to see them sitting as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their “reward” is that they do play this quick, scrappy Islanders team, who, as you mentioned, many didn’t expect to be here. Same story for them. The slates are clean now and these two teams will fight for the right to move on in one of the most grueling and challenging playoff formats in sports.
The interesting and nerve wracking part about hockey in general is that any team can win on any night. The Penguins have lost to the Panthers, who were awful this year, and they beat the #2 seed Montreal all three times. The beauty of the series is that any team can win individual games, but that in time the “better team” should come out on top over the course of up to 7 games.
So while I’m personally glad that the Islanders will be the Penguins’ opponent in Round 1, for a few different reasons, the truth of it all is that every team has the potential to take the Penguins down in the playoffs. Matt, I know you were hoping for another opponent. Anything in particular about the Islanders that scares you?
Matt: Maybe my fear of the Islanders is irrational. After all, this is a team that has been closer to the basement of the NHL than the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference for years. But, in that time, they’ve picked up some pretty impressive young players through the draft, through free agency, and through trades, making them a playoff-caliber team.
Most teams go through a transition from bottom feeder to playoff performer, but the Islanders made the jump overnight. And that is what scares me. What expectations can be placed on a team that, according to most, shouldn’t have made it in the first place? They’ve already overachieved. They have nothing to lose, which makes them a dangerous team, in my opinion.
All that said, they also have considerably less talent, grit, and experience than the Penguins, which makes them the definitive underdog in a seven-game series. Looking at the match-up, Josh, do you see the Islanders as the underdog that they undoubtedly will be portrayed as, or is their roster deceptively good?
Josh: The Islanders have a good roster, and they’ve been rewarded with a playoff appearance. In fact, one storyline that is largely overlooked here is that the Islanders’ rise to the playoffs is somewhat similar to the Penguins’ path into the league’s elite. Both teams had years of extreme struggle, a battle for a new arena that had many wondering about the fiscal viability of the franchise and therein its ability to stay in their respective cities. The struggles were rewarded with some great high draft picks, which have helped the team step into a new level of achievement. Certainly, John Tavares is no Sidney Crosby, but these paths are more similar than we may sometimes remember, probably because of the short memory being a hockey fan requires.
The Islanders have the skill and the bodies to beat the Penguins. Guys like Brad Boyes and Marty Reasoner have a lot of experience, and Mark Streit is a proficient defenseman. The Isles embarrassed a much different Penguins’ team at the beginning of the season. The team now for the Penguins has new arrivals like Jokinen, Murray, Morrow, and Iginla, as well as healthy superstars like Crosby, Malkin, Neal, and Letang. Boyes, Reasoner, and Streit aren’t even in the same class as players like that.
To me, the Isles can beat the Penguins by utilizing their speed, especially if they can get into situations where Grabner, Okposo, and Tavares have space with which to operate. While the Isles can beat the Penguins, I think it will take some very poor play from the Penguins paired with outstanding play from Evgeni Nabokov in net in order for the Isles to take a 7-game series. Nabokov has never allowed Crosby or Malkin to score on him, but he has struggled throughout his career in the playoffs, with all of that time coming in a Sharks’ uniform. Which of these trends is more likely to continue? I have my money on the latter. Nabokov played almost all 48 games for the Islanders and helped them make the playoffs. But even in a 48-game season, fatigue can happen. I think that it may be even more evident against an offensive juggernaut like the Penguins. Matt, any predictions of your own?
Matt: I have expressed concerns over the Islanders, but I’m confident this group of Penguins has the mental toughness to stay focused on the task at hand without getting involved in extracurricular activities (as they did last year against the Flyers) or looking beyond the Islanders (as they may have done against opponents such as the Lightning within the last few years).
As far as predictions go, let me make one not-so-bold statement: Brendan Morrow will transform himself from mere mortal to folk hero in the city of Pittsburgh. We got a taste of this a few weeks ago when he went crazy against the Montreal Canadiens and P.K. Subban, and I think we’ll get the full meal beginning Wednesday. Morrow’s physicality once resulted in a 19-hit (!!) playoff game that also saw him score an overtime game winner.
Quite simply, he has the ability to take control of this series and set a tone that the Islanders just can’t match. And once he’s under their skin, they’ll be more concerned about him than the game itself. That is what experience can do and why I’ll almost always choose an experienced team to defeat an inexperienced team in a best-of-seven series.
Any last thoughts before we announce our predictions?
Josh: Brenden Morrow is one of the reasons why the Penguins will be a formidable opponent in the playoffs for any suitor. So are guys like Douglas Murray and Jarome Iginla. You mentioned last year’s debacle with the Flyers. Having grit in the lineup is one thing. See: Asham, Arron. Having grit that comes with leadership and the ability to score timely goals is another. It would have been easy for Ray Shero to look at a roster with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on it and say, “Hey, why not give it another run with this system?” He didn’t. He went out and got the kind of guys that are a scarcity in the league, let alone on one team’s roster.
Look for the Penguins to play a very physical style of hockey in order to grind teams down and bait them into penalties. Guys like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are individually skilled enough that those penalties will happen. But guys like Brenden Morrow will be the ones who draw cross checking penalties camped out in the blue paint. The Isles are young and inexperienced in a playoff setting, which means they don’t understand that they should lose to a team like the Penguins.
But that inexperience also comes with the danger of getting buried early if the Penguins can assert their will. No playoff series is a cakewalk. This may be an ugly series that goes long, although the Penguins certainly have the firepower to make quick work of the Isles, just like they have the firepower to run with anyone in the league. Over the course of the series, I think you see the Penguins wear down the Isles and find ways to frustrate them. If Fleury plays like he has shown flashes of in the past, the Isles are going to have a really difficult go of things. Brandon Sutter is going to be in John Tavares’ nightmares by the time this is all said and done. And I think the Penguins can emerge victorious, hopefully without any attrition along the way.
Matt: Penguins in 5
Josh: Penguins in 5