How can the Islanders beat the Penguins?

Short Answer: Hard work and a bit of luck

How can the Islanders beat the Penguins?

Islanders vs. Penguins this season — By the numbers: From a team perspective, the New York Islanders (32-17-7; 12th) and Pittsburgh Penguins (37-16-3; 5th) each have their own strengths. The Pens were second in the league in Goals For per Game (GF/G; 3.45), fourth in Power Play Percentage (PP%; 23.7%), seventh in Win Percentage After Leading the Second Period (92.6%), fifth in Win Percentage After Trailing the Second Period (23.5%), and first in Takeaways per 60 Minutes (Takeaways/60; 7.55). The Islanders were second in the league in Goals Against per Game (GA/G; 2.23), sixth in Penalty Kill Percentage (PK%; 83.7%), and third in Hits per 60 Minutes (Hits/60; 25.54).

Both teams also have comparative weaknesses. The Pens were 13th in the league in GA/G (2.77), 27th in PK% (77.4), and 10th in Hits/60 (23.52). The Islanders were 21st in the league in GF/G (2.71), 20th in PP% (18.8%), 20th in Win Percentage After Leading the Second Period (84.2%), 11th in Win Percentage After Trailing the Second Period (16.7%), and 28th in Takeaways/60 (4.72).

As for the season series, the Islanders were 2-4-2 (2-0-2 Home and 0-4-0 Away), with a GF/G of 2.38 and GA/G of 3.25. The last time the two teams played was March 29, 2021, and since then, the Islanders went 10-7-3 (3-4-3 Last 10) and the Pens went 14-5-1 (8-2-0 Last 10).

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What the numbers tell us: The numbers say that the Penguins are better than the Islanders at scoring (+0.74 GF/G) and the Islanders are better than the Penguins at preventing goals (-0.54 GA/G). However, the Penguins clearly have the edge both in comparative net season (+0.20) and season series (+0.87) goal statistics. Otherwise, the Penguins are noticeably better at both holding leads and coming back in games, as well as stealing the puck.

So, based on the numbers, the Penguins should win. However, given that five of their eight season series games were decided by one goal, their margin for error is very small.

How the Islanders can beat the Pens: The first and most obvious step for the Islanders to win the series is to limit the Pens’ PP opportunities. Since the Islanders were one of the lowest in the league in Penalty Minutes per Game (29th; 6:36) and Referees tend to keep their whistles in their pockets during the playoffs, doing so is well within their capabilities. This alone could flip the series in the Islanders’ favor. That being said, worst case, if they get stuck on a PK, they’re fortunate enough to have one of the best in the league as their insurance policy.

A second step, paraphrasing Islanders’ Coach Barry Trotz, is to “survive the Penguins’ pushes.” In a recent interview, Trotz said that this was key in their 4-0 sweep of the Pens in Round One of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. One of the best ways to do this is to continue to effectively use layers to block shots. NBC analyst and former NHLer Keith Jones drew attention to Trotz’s use of this stingy defensive strategy in Game One of this year’s series. While the Islanders should be able to count on their goaltending, with Semyon Varlamov on the mend and Ilya Sorokin new to the NHL Playoffs, the Islanders’ skill of blocking shots (13.99/60 minutes; 7th in the league) will help ease Sorokin into the experience.

A third step is to get shots, and plenty of them, on the Penguins’ inexperienced goalies. In contrast to the Islanders, the Pens are one of the worst in the league at blocking shots (11.72/60 minutes; 25th in the league), and this matters. As we saw in Game One, all four goals that Tristan Jarry let in were straight, relatively unobstructed shots that he could have (and probably should have) saved. If the Islanders can keep the shots coming, there’s a good chance that the Penguins’ goaltending will buckle under the pressure.

As for the fourth step, it’s already done. According to Mike Kelly, “Teams that win Game 1 win the series 68.7% of the time.” While the series isn’t over until four wins, the Islanders have one in the bag and the odds in their favor.

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A Question for the Peanut Gallery

Do you think the Islanders will pull off the upset over the Penguins? 

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