Eastern Conference QF Islanders vs. Penguins Game 1: Preview

 

The 2013 NHL season has come to an end and an impressive push down the stretch by our beloved Isles has secured them the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. For the first time since 2007, the New York Islanders will play post-season hockey and compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

However, the real challenge lies ahead for the Islanders, as they will take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. The Penguins basically ran circles around the rest of the Eastern Conference during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, finishing in 1st place with 72 points. 

The Penguins took the season series against the Islanders 4-1. After dominating the Pens in a 4-1 road victory, the Isles dropped the following four games, getting outscored 16-5 in that stretch. 

The big story surrounding Steel City’s hockey team this season was the bold trade deadline moves by Pittsburgh’s GM, Ray Shero. The Penguins were able to add some serious depth to an already stacked roster by acquiring Jerome Iginla, Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow, and Jussi Jokenin.

Might I also add that they did so by only trading away draft picks? These four guys, in addition to Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz, Letang, Dupuis, and Cooke put the capital D in Depth. This Pittsburgh team is the real deal and the highly un-favored Islanders have their work cut out for them.

For this series, all eyes have shifted to the health status of Penguin’s star center, Sidney Crosby. Crosby’s last game (coincidently against the Islanders) was on March 30th, where a deflected shot came right up into Sidney’s face and fractured his jaw.Image preview

Although he was sidelined for the last month of the regular season, Crosby tied for 3rd place in the league in points and is still a heavy favorite for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.The Penguins and Crosby are still currently waiting for a medical clearance and it is uncertain if he will be dressed for Game 1. (Photo Credit: bbreen37/Flickr)

Even if Crosby is ready to go tonight, scratching Sid the Kid for Game 1 is a possible strategic move for Penguin's coach, Dan Bylsma. In addition to Crosby’s ailment, Pittsburgh has seen other stars like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and James Neal suffer injuries for periods of time this season. Despite this, the team has been a vigorous powerhouse that can win the game, no matter who’s dressed and who’s not.

Regardless of whether Crosby is on the ice tonight, the Islanders can't stray away from the things that got them here. In the final two months of the season, the Islanders showed the league that they could string together a plethora of wins and play competitive hockey with the rest of the Conference.

Most of New York’s success can be attributed to the ever growing and progressing John Tavares. The heart and soul of the Islanders, who is also being frequently thrown around in Hart Trophy discussions, truly carried his team during this 48-game season. The 22 year-old center lead the Isles with 47 points and finished 3rd in the league in goals scored with 28.  

Tonight will be Tavares’ first NHL Playoff game and any Islanders fan will tell you that this is where he belongs. Tavares has proven to the team, the fans, and to the rest of the league that he is an elite star in this league and his struggle to be the best is unmatched.

The Islanders also need Evgeni Nabakov to be at his very best for this series. The 37-year-old net minder stood on his head for the Isles down the stretch this season, providing a veteran presence in the locker room and giving the team a chance to win game in and game out. Nabby is also one of the only players on the Isles’ roster to have been to the playoffs before. His familiarity of the intensity level of the games to come will be key in any type of Islander success in this series.

Although the line depth of the Pittsburgh Penguins dwarfs that of the New York, the Isles’ secondary scorers need to continue their strong play as they did in the final month of the regular season. The Bailey-Nielsen-Okposo trio has proved to be a reliable helper to the Tavares line in lighting the lamp.

Additionally, Michael Grabner seems to have shaken off his sophomore slump. The 

Image previewspeedy goal-scorer tallied the 2nd most goals amongst the Islanders this season with 16. Not bad for a 3rd line forward if you as me. (Photo Credit: bridgetds/Flickr)

It is no secret that the Islanders are the underdog in this series and facing an early exit from the postseason seems more likely than not. But if this game has taught us anything, its that anything can happen and that when the regular season ends, anything can happen in the playoffs.

The puck drops at 7:30 in Pittsburgh at the Energy Consol Centre.

Let’s Go Islanders! 

 

-T.J. Weber

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