Collectively, the New York Islanders had a goal heading into the truncated 2013 NHL regular season: To be a playoff team.
They can consider it mission accomplished. The Islanders will participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
Now that the Islanders are in, though, the objective has changed. Now, it’s about making noise.
“We understand that we have to be way better to make any run in the playoffs,” Matt Martin said after the Islanders beat the Panthers, 5-2, April 16 at the Coliseum. “We’re not going to beat some of the better teams in the league in a seven-game series if we play like that.”
Success and failure are enmeshed with attention to the game’s details. For the Islanders, implementing those details will be paramount if they are to upset the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Penguins in the best-of-seven series beginning Wednesday night at the CONSOL Energy Center.
“We’ve talked about how our team is built and how we have to play as a team,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said after the Islanders beat the Flyers, 4-2, April 9 at the Coliseum. “They’re buying in, not only in the framework and structure of our team but in one and other. They’ve been real good, from top to bottom.”
Pittsburgh won four of the five regular-season meetings between the two teams, outscoring the Islanders, 17-9. The Islanders only win was a 4-2 decision on Jan. 29 at CONSOL Energy Center.
The Penguins were among the most active teams at the trade deadline, adding defenseman Douglas Murray from the Sharks and wingers Brendan Morrow and Jarome Iginla from the Stars and Flames, respectively. The veteran trio added grit, depth and skill to an already-potent Penguins squad. Pittsburgh’s 3.38 goals per game average was the NHL’s best in the regular season.
By any appreciable measure, the Penguins are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. But there are reasons for the Islanders to feel confident heading into the series.
The Islanders finished the final month of the regular season with an impressive 8-1-4 mark, including wins over playoff squads Boston and Toronto.
“It’s huge,” Martin said after the win over Florida. “We’ve grown up a lot as a team.”
Among the reasons the Islanders were successful this season was their ability to play an up-tempo, forechecking game. The Islanders finished the year sixth in the NHL with a 2.81 goals per game average.
Top-line center John Tavares’ 28 goals and 47 points were third- and 10th-most in the league. He was followed by Michael Grabner (16 goals), linemates Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes (16 goals and 10 goals, respectively) and Josh Bailey (11).
“We’re playing much better,” Tavares said after the April 9 win over the Flyers. “We’re giving ourselves the best possible chance we can.
“I like our chances. We’re playing well and we have to keep building off the things we’re doing.”
This will mark the fourth time overall and the first time in 20 years the Atlantic Division rivals have met in the playoffs. The Islanders have won all three series. David Volek’s goal 5:16 into overtime of Game 7 of the 1992-93 Eastern Conference semifinal eliminated the then two-time Stanley Cup champions.
Series breakdown ...
FORWARDS: These groups present an interesting matchup for a number of reasons. The Penguins have the deepest collection of skill forwards in the league, and the possibility exists that Sidney Crosby could return from a broken jaw suffered in the 2-0 win over the Islanders on March 30. The Islanders counter with Hart Trophy candidate John Tavares, linemate Matt Moulson and secondary-scorers Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo.
DEFENSE: Half of Pittsburgh’s top six defensemen — Kris Letang (broken toe, illness), Brooks Orpik (lower body) and Paul Martin (broken hand) — battled injuries in the second half of the season. So if the Islanders are to advance, look for foot soldiers Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald to wear them down. The Islanders have back-end playoff experience in Lubomir Visnovsky, Matt Carkner and Mark Streit.
GOALTENDING: An argument can be made that Evgeni Nabokov was just as important to the Islanders’ success this season as Tavares. Nabokov was in goal for 23 of the Islanders’ 24 wins this season, and he compiled a .910 save percentage and 2.50 GAA. Marc-Andre Fleury is the Rodney Dangerfield of goaltenders. He gets no respect, despite going 23-8-0 in the regular season. He is 12-14 with a 3.08 GAA and .682 the last three playoff seasons though.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is a mixed bag for both teams. The Penguins (24.7 percent, second in the NHL) and Islanders (19.9 percent, tied for 10th in the league) are close to lethal with the man advantage, but both teams are below middle of the pack in penalty killing. The Islanders finished the regular season 21st on the penalty kill (80.2 percent) and Pittsburgh was 25th (79.6 percent).
PREDICTION: The Islanders talked throughout the year about taking a step forward, and they have by qualifying for the playoffs. But there is a decided difference between qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs and advancing a round. The Penguins' depth and skill will be too much.
PENGUINS IN SIX.
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman for comprehensive coverage of the Islanders and Rangers throughout the postseason.