Penguins First Round Playoff Roundtable

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15: Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a slapshot against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15: Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a slapshot against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Penguins are set to meet up with the New York Islanders, or is it the Brooklyn Islanders, or the Long Island Islanders, in the first-round of the 2018-2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In their first playoff matchup since the Penguins defeated the Islanders in six games in the 2013 playoffs, we can expect a tight series with lots of hard checks and after-the-whistle scrums.

To preview a little about what to expect in the first-round matchup, I asked some seasoned Penguins writers to give us some insight into what the Penguins might run into against a team many expected to not come close to making the playoffs this season after losing star forward John Tavares to his hometown Maple Leafs during free agency.

Participating in this year’s first-round roundtable is:

Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH), Penguins writers for The Athletic: Pittsburgh.

Ryan Wilson (@GunnerStaal), Penguins writer for Hockeybuzz.

Geoff (@G_Off817), from the Pensblog

Eric Majeski (@LGP_netwolf), who has written for and Pensburgh

Nick Vucic (@npv708), you’re host extraordinaire and writer at PensLabyrinth.

1.       Before we start, let’s all say one nice thing about the Islanders:

Ryan: They have done a nice job staving off relocation like the Penguins did.

Geoff: Congrats on exceeding expectations and not being one of the 5 worst teams in the NHL I guess?

Eric: The Islanders surprised me (and a lot of others) this year. They were supposed to take a step back, but I guess that was news to them. I kept expecting them to fall off, but here we are at season’s end and they’re second in the division. Full marks to them for that.

Nick: They were smart enough to abandon the Barclays Center as much as possible (even though they’d be back there after the first round).

2.       Who’s the one player on the Islanders you expect to be an absolute thorn in Penguin’s side this series not named Eberle or Barzal?

Josh: Casey Cizikas. He always give the Penguins fits. He’s physical and has more goal scoring touch than many give him credit for. What they consider their fourth line on Long Island is really a third line, and a good one. He’s the leader of the group and must be accounted for.

Ryan: I think Brock Nelson is a solid player and if the Penguins devote their attention to the Barzal-Eberle duo Nelson might get a favorable matchup and do something with it.  He had 35 points at 5v5 at a rate of 1.88 per 60.  He also plays on the top power play unit (strangely Barzal does not) so he’ll get looks there as well.

Geoff: Casey Cizikas.  Dude is such a menace.  He’s only got 4G-7A in 32 games against the Penguins (which is joint-most for him against a single club), but for some reason, it always feels like he pops up with some big goal against the Pens.  Maybe it was because of his 2G-2A in that 6 game series in 2013.  Who knows.  But he might score like 8 shorthanded goals because of course he will.  Between he and Clutterbuck on that 4th line running around being dickheads at will, he just feels like he’s going to be the ultimate villain.

Eric: I feel like Anders Lee is the obvious answer here, but I’ll go with Casey Cizikas. He put up 20 goals as their 4th line center, getting no power play time and averaging under 15 minutes a night. If he keeps shooting a career high 18%, he’ll be a problem.

Nick: I’m going to go in a different way and say Valtteri Filppula. Despite just coming back from an injury, I think Filppula could create havoc for the Penguins power play and offset some of the Penguins third line advantage.

3.       Islanders goaltending – System, luck, or skill?

Geoff: I think it’s a little bit of both system and skill.  In one sense, there’s no denying Trotz’ ability to organize a team to be defensive stalwarts and trap/slow teams down.  Their expected goals against this season at 5v5 per 60 minutes was one of the best in the league, suggesting they’re a great team at limiting quality looks against their goaltenders from a systems perspective.

But in the other sense, don’t sleep on goalie coach Mitch Korn, either.  He left Washington with Trotz, but was largely regarded as a huge reason Holtby turned from being a middling goalie to a Vezina winner.  Holtby had the tools to be among that elite class and I think you could say the same for Lehner, but Korn I think is a big reason for that talent being realized and manifesting itself with on-ice stats.  For as bad as those Sabres teams were that Lehner played on, he was a .924 and .920 goalie in his first two seasons in Buffalo.  Obviously, we all know about his mental health struggles last year, but he’s still a career .918 SV% guy.  That .930 this season is a little reckless, sure, but he’s shown over his career that he’s possessed the skill to play at an adjacent level to what he put on this year.

Thomas Greiss, though, who the hell knows.  That’s a dude that makes no sense to me.

Eric: I haven’t watched enough of them to say, but I suspect it’s a little of all three. Lehner and Greiss aren’t top tier guys, but very capable and Trotz and Korn are near or at the top of their coaching positions.

Nick: System, system, system. I agree with others that credit goaltender coach Mitch Korn, but the Islanders are a team designed first and foremost to be defensively stifling. It’s not terribly far off of the model Trotz worked with in Nashville.

Josh: I can’t deny that the Islanders have enjoyed good goaltending this season. But if have to give most of the credit to Barry Trotz’s system, which is notorious for not leaving goaltender’s hung out to try.

Ryan: I don’t think it is luck.  Robin Lehner has always shown flashes of being good.  I think his mental health story is great and no doubt correlated with his rebound season.  Thomas Greiss has been a consistently good backup his entire career.  He is 14th out of 42 goalies who have played in 7,500 minutes or more with a .920 5v5 save percentage.

4.       What is the one stat (fancy or not) that will be the difference, good or bad, for the Penguins in this series? And no you can’t say plus/minus.

Eric: If there’s a stat out there that quantifies overall effectiveness of special teams at home, I’ll take that one. The Pens’ special teams are markedly better on the road (both units are 2nd) than at home (worst PK, 20th PP). If they can carry some of that road magic back to PPG, that would be huge.

Nick: I’m going to go with a non-fancy statistic for this one and say shots. The Penguins will need to not just get a good amount of shots on net, they’ll need to pour it on to break through the Islanders defense and goaltending.

Josh: 15 — That’s how many shorthanded goals the Penguins allowed this season. If this problem continues into the postseason, it will spell big trouble.

Ryan: I think it is Shot attempts for per 60.  If the Penguins are able to generate shot attempts at a high rate I like their chances.  Islanders goaltending has been great, but so has Pittsburgh’s.  I don’t think the Islanders talent is as high as the Penguins.  In the last 25 games of the year the Islanders are 25th overall in giving up shot attempts at 5v5.

Geoff: If someone took plus/minus and gave it a uranium enema then shot it in the face with a rocket launcher, it wouldn’t be enough justice for what it truly deserves.

But it is going to come down to PDO/which team converts more efficiently.

What I mean by that is that the Islanders, for example, led the league in both 5v5 SV% and PDO, while they were a top 10 team in shooting percentage.  But they rarely got the top level SV% at the same time as a top 10 Sh% and were, by and large, a pretty low event/boring hockey team.

They had spells this year where they scored goals at a ridiculous rate, but had separate spells where they couldn’t score but just got by on not giving up any goals ever.  In fact, from an expected goals perspective, there were only about 3 or 4 teams that you could say were as boring or more boring than them.  In other words, they don’t create a lot, but don’t give a lot either.

For the Pens, it was kind of the opposite this year to a point.  They teetered on the fence between “Good” and “Fun,” with “Fun” being the antithesis of the Islanders (i.e. giving up a lot, but creating a lot).  The Pens were great creators and were fine deniers.

So to circle back to the efficiency, there may not be that much in the way of quality chances in this series and if one of these two teams doesn’t find a way to convert with regularity on the few chances they get, then there’s a legitimate possibility that we could be looking at a reboot of the 2013 Conference Final against Boston where one of these two teams manages to score exactly 3 goals over the course of the entire series, especially when you consider the wave Murray is riding coming into the playoffs and the season Lehner/Greiss had this year.

So for the Pens, they’re going to need to find a way to beat Lehner when they’re presented with the rare opportunity.

5.       What’s one mistake you’re worried Sullivan might make?

Eric: All due respect to Mike Sullivan (who’s forgotten more about hockey than I’ll ever know), but he’s going to make a mistake when Brian Dumoulin is ready, assuming no one else is hurt. Maatta-Letang has been solid and Pettersson-Gudbranson has been surprisingly solid for the most part. Dumoulin should replace Johnson and stabilize things for Schultz, but this won’t happen. Someone else (Pettersson? Maatta?) will sit instead.

Josh: Sullivan doesn’t make many mistakes but he can be guilty of overthinking a bit. Certain combinations and pairings worked this season. They should be left together even if the Penguins encounter some easy resistance.

Ryan: Same one he’s made for 82 games.  Playing Johnson above his abilities.  If Brian Dumoulin is healthy this means playing him at all.  Objectively speaking he is a drag on all of his teammates including Sidney Crosby.  He doesn’t do anything to merit a spot in the lineup.  Not rostering the best players in the playoffs seems like an obvious mistake to avoid.  Will Sullivan avoid it?

Geoff: Continuing to play Jack Johnson.  I know this feels like such a cop out to even type out loud, but by every measurable data bucket, he’s far and away the worst defenseman on the team and has had a net negative impact on Justin Schultz since he came back too, just as he has with nearly every player he’s on the ice with.

And when you look at what Olli Maatta has done since coming back from injury and the prospect of Brian Dumoulin coming back for Game 1, you’re looking at a top 4 of Maatta-Letang//Dumoulin-Schultz.  Dumo is good with whoever he plays with and HCMS has something working with Maatta-Letang, so it’s hard for me to justify splitting them up.  That leaves you with 2 spots for Pettersson, Gudbranson, and Johnson.

And with the 19 game body of work that Pettersson-Gudbranson have put together (at 5-on-5, they own a 55.44% share of shot attempts, a 55.69% share of unblocked attempts, 57.20% share on shots on goal, 56.25% share of goals scored, 59.73% share of scoring chances, and 72.41% share of high danger chances when they’re on the ice together) to make Gudbranson, largely regarded as the worst defenseman in the league, coupled with the archaic idea that Gudbranson was brought here to help mitigate the bull from guys like Tom Wilson (or, in this series, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck), the odd-man out seems pretty obvious here and it ain’t Erik Gudbranson or Marcus Pettersson.

Never thought I’d see the day where I praised Erik Gudbranson, but aside from his Johnson-level expected goals for and against values, I take Gudbranson over Johnson 8 days a week at this point.

Nick: Since I’m in total agreement with everyone else about Sullivan regarding Johnson, which I’ve written about extensively here, I’ll go with not playing Teddy Blueger. Blueger has been a spark on the bottom lines and is exactly the type of player that can come out of seemingly nowhere to make a difference in the playoffs. With a healthy Aston-Reese likely to slot in, I’m not sure Blueger will see any action.

6.       Who will win, how many games will it take, and why?

Josh: I like the Penguins in 6. They’re just a better, more talented team. It will be a dogfight but cream usually rises to the top. The Islanders will have no answer for Crosby.

Ryan: I think the Islanders goaltending is capable of stealing a couple games, but that is about it.  I think Matt Murray is playing at the same level and I just can’t get to a place where I see the Penguins being outplayed on a consistent basis in the series.  Penguins in 6

Geoff: Pens in 6.  Lehner is going to steal at least one game (but probably two), but ultimately I don’t think they have the horses up front to outscore the Penguins despite how good of a coach Trotz is.  He doesn’t have the luxury of deploying Backstrom, Ovi, and Kuznetsov when he shuts down the Pens this year like he did last year.  He has Barzal and…that’s about it.  Don’t @ me about Josh Bailey or Anders Lee, either.

Eric: I want to pick the Pens in 5, but it seems like a recurring theme this year is them not liking things easy, so I’ll pick them in 6. They’ll be sloppy early, but gradually tighten things up as the series progresses.

Nick: I’m going to go with Penguins in 7. The Penguins never make things easy. They had an off year for most of the season and turned it on when necessary, whereas the Islanders have been more consistently average. The teams finished close in the standings and assuming the Penguins play a game more closely resembling the second half of the regular season, they’ll finish off the Islanders in a tight series. I don’t expect the Penguins to score more than four goals in any single game.

7.       Pick an upset in any of the other first round series:

Ryan: I think the Vegas Golden Knights have been a force since acquiring Mark Stone.  Marc-Andre Fleury was horrid to start the year and has gradually improved each month.  The Sharks are an awesome team, but they have league worst goaltending.  Vegas has two first lines.  I don’t know how Martin Jones or Aaron Dell navigate that.  Doug Wilson let his team down by not doing something about his goaltending at the deadline.

Geoff: Carolina over Washington.  Again, Trotz was king at slowing down the Pens last year, but with him gone and the speed, skill, and whole “being too young and dumb to know any better,” I think Carolina runs roughshod on them.  They’re just electric.

Eric: Give me the Bunch of Jerks in Carolina to knock off the Caps. I have no logical reason for this; I just want to see it happen.

Josh: I don’t have many big upsets picked, but I don’t but the Flames and think the Avalanche will give them a battle.

Nick: I really, and I mean really, want to pick Carolina over Washington, but it’s just not happening. I’d also pick the Maple Leafs over the Bruins, but I don’t think that’s really that much of an upset. Vegas finished 8 points behind the Sharks in the standings, but has been the far better team of late, after adding Stone at the deadline. San Jose’s goaltending might be the shakiest of any team in the postseason and could fall apart at any moment, especially with facing the weapons that the Golden Knights can deploy. I’m calling Vegas over San Jose, in 5 games.

Now it’s time to wait and see what comes of these predictions and hopefully we’ll be back to bring you a second round preview in the near future.