It’s Upstart Vs. Upstart.
Islanders vs. Hurricanes in Round Two on Friday night at Barclays Center.
And how unlikely is this match-up?
When the season began last October critics consigned the Nassau County-Kings County Isles to somewhere South of the NHL Neverland.
The Canes were given a bit of a better chance. The Hockey News figured Raleigh’s favorite hockey team would finish fifth in the Metro Division.
So, what do we have here but a pair of white-heat-sizzling underdogs who now have a realistic chance of actually reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
But since both can’t do it, let’s take a gander at this pair of wonder teams. So, under the Hockey X-Ray, we go.
New York’s four-game sweep of Pittsburgh was largely achieved because the Isles’ Top-6 forwards hit the top of their respective games at precisely the right moment. Jordan (Goal A Game) Eberle was the prime orchestrator of biggies but his colleagues, Mathew (Five Points In Four Games) Barzal, Anders (Super Captain) Lee, Brock (He’s A New Man) Nelson and Josh (Ace) Bailey all came up smelling like roses on ice.
Complimenting the leading men were worthy understudies; the good grunts; alias Lou Lamoriello‘s superb acquisitions: Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula and Tom Kuhnhackl. The Isles deflated the Pens with incessant forechecking paced by Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck also known as “The NHL’s Best Fourth Line.” Put ’em all together and you get remarkable balance and enough firepower to defeat just about any club.
Sebastian Aho is the Canes’ answer to Sidney Crosby. The Flashy Finn has a versatile offensive game and fearlessness that makes him fearful to any defense. Defensive stalwart Jordan Staal proved against Washington that he still has a scoring touch. Underrated Teuvo Terravainen has proven that he can shine in clutch moments and, of course, Justin Williams still has the goods. Plus, you can’t overlook young Brock McGinn who got the double-overtime winner to dethrone the Capitals in Game 7.
As for similarities, Carolina brings a solid six to the second round. Keep an eye on Warren Foegele, who played last season with AHL Charlotte. He can score, has a solid two-way game and penalty-killing abilities. He’s the Canes’ Mister Versatile. Lucas Wallmark is another effective contributor. If he’s given the okay to return, hotshot Andrei Svechnikov is a sight as he swoops down off the wing and right to the crease for scoring opportunities.
You can be forgiven if you’re still wondering how Barry Trotz turned the worst NHL defense into the best virtually overnight. And they proved their worth against the Crosby-Malkin-Kessel arsenal. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech have come of age as a solid duet while Devon Toews is called by some Isles fans “The Hidden Gem.”
How the Isles adjust to the loss of Johnny Boychuk via injury will go a long way toward determining whether the club goes a long way. Veteran Thomas Hickey will replace Boychuk and that’s not a bad thing; not at all. Another question is whether this D can minimize Carolina’s “Firewagon” style of hockey?
This is a better backline than the 2017-18 model thanks to the additions of Dougie Hamilton via trade and Calvin de Haan via free agency. They complement underrated Jacob Slavin and Brett Pesce who normally face the foe’s top lines. When you add Justin Faulk and Trevor van Riemsdyk to the mix, you have one of the best units in Canes history, give or take Raleigh’s Cup year.
Here’s how much The Hockey News likes them: “Hamilton’s offensive ability and de Haan’s steady play gives the Hurricanes a top four that stacks up with the best in the league.”
In other words, the Isles won’t be facing patsies on the Carolina blue line. The Capitals made that discovery in the seven-game first round.
Robin Lehner is the goalie-of-the-season. He’s already sharing the Jennings Trophy with buddy Thomas Greiss. Plus, there’s a good chance the Sweet Swede will win the Vezina and Masterton Trophies as well. Speaking of well, Lehner clearly outdueled Matt Murray to help the Isles sweep Pittsburgh, but Robin will have to do some “robbing” of a hot Canes offensive team.
In the unlikely — but you never know in the playoffs, do you? — event that Lehner falters in any way, shape or form, coach Trotz will do what he’s done all season and whistle for Greiss. Thomas, himself, had a career year. There should be no worries in goal.
Carolina’s goaltending last season was plain awful. Scott Darling’s confidence disappeared and Cam Ward did his best but wore down in the end. Minus Darling and Ward, GM Don Waddell pulled off a miracle of sorts by adding Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. The pair fooled just about everyone with top-notch rubber-stopping.
In a sense, one could say that Mrazek has been The Poor Man’s Lehner. Meanwhile, McElhinney has been to the Canes what Greiss has been for the Islanders.
All season long, Isles fans kept hoping that the faltering power play would improve. When it came playoff time, the PP went 2-for-13 against Pitt but those two goals were series-changers. What’s more, the power play seemed more confident as the post-season evolved.
Meanwhile, the penalty-killers were aces against the Crosby-Malkin-Kessel-Letang machine. Trotz’s throttlers were aggressive and took away the shooting lanes.
The Canes’ power play struggled last year but the addition of Hamilton has had a positive impact. Without Svechnikov, it’s less effective, although Staal has come around and there’s no fault with Faulk. The penalty-killers certainly didn’t cost them the series with the Caps.,
If there’s been a better coaching job than Trotz pulled off in 2018-19, it’s not in my memory bank. ‘Nuff said.
“This group is not afraid to work, which is a pleasure as a coach at any level.”
— x – New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) April 25, 2019
As a player, Rod Brind’Amour was a top-notch leader. He’s brought that inspiration to his men and their victory over Washington is proof of Rod’s superior work.
Since they’ve gone farther than anyone expected, the Isles are now playing with house money. They are rested and — except for the injured Boychuk — in good health. Plus, motivation remains high; ditto confidence. They could return a bit stale from the long layoff. That could be an issue.
Speed can be dangerous and considering the manner in which the Canes use their Mercury moves, it has become a huge asset. Carolina came on strong in the homestretch and are as confident and motivated as the Islanders, although likely more fatigued.
Nelson has significantly upped his game under Trotz. The big Minnesotan starred against Pitt, playing fast and physically on every shift. Another showing like that against the Canes could put the Isles over the top.
Playing from the underdog location gives Carolina a loose-goosey mentality that could give them an edge. Justin Williams’ leadership cannot be discounted.
Islanders in seven. Sure, I said that about the Pitt series and I was right — minus three games. This time, the Canes will be a lot tougher than the flightless birds now known as out-of-the-playoffs Penguins!
[Watch Post-Game Coverage Following Game 1 Friday on MSG+ & MSG GO.]