Pens Don't Need to Overwhelm Islanders, Just Outlast Them
Patience, persistence and taking what the game gives is critical in Round One.
They’re built for this, constructed by Jim Rutherford and instructed by Mike Sullivan in a manner that provides for the Penguins the best possible chance to navigate the challenges playoff hockey is destined to initially present.
The rest is up to the Penguins.
Their first-round series with the Islanders will be a test of will at least as much as skill.
Of patience and persistence as much as play-making prowess.
Of detail and discipline as much as depth.
The Islanders keep it simple.
Their intent, first and foremost, is to keep the puck out of their net.
They were the worst team in the NHL at doing that a season ago, when they leaked in 296 goals.
They were the NHL’s best in that department this season, when they permitted just 196.
That’s the second such worst-to-first transformation in NHL history, and the first time it’s been done since it was accomplished by the Ottawa Senators –– the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators (114) and the 1918-19 Ottawa Senators (53).
So yeah, it’s been a while.
“I think they’re the No. 1 team in the league in the least amount of odd-man rushes against,” Sullivan offered.
So it hasn’t happened by accident, or by goaltenders Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss having to consistently dazzle.
That’s the Barry Trotz effect, the buy in on the part of the Islanders regarding what Trotz asked of them upon his arrival after winning a Stanley Cup last season with the Capitals.
The Islanders aren’t the most talented team in the league but they might be the NHL’s most self-assured.
“They have a certain discipline with their game and it’s part of, I think, the identity that they’ve created for themselves,” Sullivan continued. “We understand what we’re up against.”
The Penguins, likewise, have no misconceptions regarding how to respond.
“We’re going to have to have an element of patience associated with our game,” Sullivan explained. “We’re going to have to make sure that we take care of the puck and that we don’t give them freebies by becoming a high-risk team or trying to make plays that aren’t there in certain areas of the rink.”
The idea won’t be to overwhelm the Islanders as much as it will be to outlast them.
The Pens should be able to do that provided they don’t become frustrated in the likely event they’re unable to score a bunch of goals or achieve much separation while the games are playing out in the tight-checking, low-scoring manner Trotz-coached teams are often able to establish.
The mental toughness and discipline, the perseverance and attention to detail necessary to thrive in such an environment is what Sullivan began working to instill in the Penguins upon his arrival in December of 2015.
The result has been two Cups won and a second-round exit against a team that was on its way to winning one.
Eventually, it’ll take more than that. Should they end up squaring off against the high-flying, defending-champion Caps or the higher-flying Lightning this spring, the Pens will need their stars shining as brightly as they possibly can.
But for openers, the postseason is a by-the-numbers proposition.
Don’t turn the puck over at the bluelines or in the neutral zone.
Create scoring opportunities off the forecheck, the cycle or from below the goal line if trying to generate offense off the rush looks like too risky a proposition.
Don’t get flustered at one end and open the door at the other.
Play the game the Penguins are capable of playing if not always willing to play.
The Islanders should have a hard time scoring, too, unless the Pens allow impatience to creep into the equation.
“We just have to make sure that we take what the game gives us,” Sullivan emphasized.
Trying to do more would invite an unnecessary risk and potentially disastrous ramifications.
The Pens have been built and coached to know better.