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Typically finishing first in the division should mean smooth sailing through the first round. The East Division is a different story, where all four teams are incredibly strong, and no one has an easy matchup.
In 2019 these two squared off against each other in a series all Pens fans want to forget. Much like last time, Pittsburgh should’ve won on paper, but the Barry Trotz program continues to make the Islanders a strong team. Though the 4th seed, and underdogs, the Islanders are by far the best 4th seed heading into the playoffs.
Odds via Bet365
Percentage odds via Dom Luszczyszyn & MoneyPuck.com
|Pittsburgh Penguins -155||Series Probability||New York Islanders +135|
These two teams couldn’t be more different in their playstyle. The Penguins are going to want to force the Islanders into a high-octane offensive game, while the Islanders are going to do everything in their power to keep this as boring of a series as possible. The Penguins won the season series 6-2, with two of those wins coming in overtime. So when thinking about this series, Penguins; offense. Islanders, defense. It really is that simple.
The Islanders roster gets progressively better as you move down the ice. The forward group has lots of issues scoring, and although much of that is on the system, you would want more production from them. Missing Anders Lee hurts, and his replacements Zajac, and Palmieri have been black holes offensively. It will be interesting to see how Matt Barzal can rebound after playing terribly to close the year, including being scratched. Defensively, this team shines. They lost Devon Toews in the offseason and haven’t missed a beat. They’re all solid, but don’t contribute much, think a group of six stay-at-home defensemen. Ryan Pulock will be a key if they are to have any success, he was great at shutting down the opponent in the regular season. Although facing a center group of Crosby, Malkin & Carter will be tough to match up against. In net is where the Islanders really shine. All their defensive plays and the system is designed to get the most out of their goalie, and it works. Both Varlamov and Sorokin finished top 17 in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSVA). I would expect that to only improve in the playoffs.
The Penguins on the other hand are dominant upfront. The addition of Jeff Carter at the deadline solidifies the Penguins down the middle and gives them a very important 1-2-3 punch, especially against a team like the Islanders. Guentzel and Rust on Crosby’s wings form a dominant top line, and depth throughout like Zucker and Kapanen create wave after wave which will be hard for the Islanders to defend. The Pens back-end isn’t bad either. Centered around Letang, the core has seen lots of turnovers the last few years but continues to play well. Matheson and Ceci as a pair might give fans heart attacks, but they have played well this year. In net is the true question mark, normally teams that platoon goalies tend to not fare well in deciding games, like Carolina for example. Tristan Jarry will be called upon to be the guy for them. Luckily for him, the Islanders are terrible at creating scoring chances, so he shouldn’t have to make big saves very often.
Players to Watch
Sidney Crosby: 55GP / 24G / 38A / 62P
Jake Guentzel: 56GP / 23G / 34A / 57P
Kris Letang: 55GP / 7G / 38A / 45P
Wildcard – Kasperi Kapanen: 40GP / 11G / 19A / 30P
Mathew Barzal: 55GP / 17G/ 28A / 45P
Josh Bailey: 54GP / 8G / 27A / 35GP
Brock Nelson: 56GP / 18G / 15A / 33P
Wildcard – Anthony Beauvillier: 47GP / 15G / 13A / 28P
For the first time all season, the Penguins are healthy, and the importance of that cannot be understated. When the Penguins are healthy as a unit, they have a legit shot at winning the cup. Always remember to never bet against Sidney Crosby.
The Islanders, although they’ve played the Pens well this year, have a tough task. Last year’s run seems more magical than the norm for them. An upset is definitely possible, but unlikely. The Islanders have been spiraling down for a while now, and probably won’t be corrected in time.
Ultimately, these teams have very different strengths and weaknesses. It just looks like the Penguins will be able to take advantage of the mismatches better.