Finally, after what amounted to a 10-day break for the Islanders following their first-round sweep of the Penguins, the second round will begin against the Hurricanes with Game 1 on Friday night at Barclays Center.
Carolina comes in after a dramatic 4-3 double-overtime victory against the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals on Wednesday night in Washington, so not a lot of time for them to breathe. The question is whether their prolonged wait was enough time for the Islanders to develop some rust.
Yet, in terms of personnel and style, the Islanders now find themselves with a matchup against a team very similar to themselves. They both are bereft of full-fledged superstars and both play to their strengths of depth and unity. If any precedent exists in the playoffs, these will be tight, defensive games.
This summer, if someone said Robin Lehner and Petr Mrazek would be the starting goalies in the second round of the playoffs, there would be few who believed. But here they are, as Lehner has entirely turned around his personal life and his career while getting nominated for both the Masterton and Vezina trophies.
He had one of the best statistical seasons between the pipes in Islanders history — as did his co-winner of the Jennings Trophy, Thomas Greiss, ready to go in at any moment without much drop-off. Lehner was terrific in sweeping the Penguins, showing not just high-end talent and athleticism, but a competitive fire that can be contagious.
Mzarek, 27, spent the early part of his career with the Red Wings and came to the Hurricanes this season, taking over as the starter about midway through. He was a big part of their second-half push, going 12-3-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .943 save percentage from Feb. 8 to the end of the regular season. The stats weren’t quite there in the seven games against the Capitals (2.54, .899), but he did make some timely saves.
The Islanders lost veteran leader Johnny Boychuk to a lower-body injury suffered while blocking a shot in Game 4 against the Penguins. His timeline was three-to-four weeks, and three weeks exactly would be Game 6. Yet the club is confident in the ability of replacement Thomas Hickey, who had been a regular in the top-four before he suffered a concussion Dec. 17 that kept him out almost three months.
The young duo of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock was a catalyst in shutting down Sidney Crosby’s line in the first round, while Devon Toews can skate like the wind and Scott Mayfield is a sturdy stay-at-home righty-shot to solidify the third pair.
Carolina’s blueline is still centered around Justin Faulk, while 24-year-old Jaccob Slavin has turned into a top-pair minutes eater, putting up nine assists in the opening round. The puck-movers continue with the offensively dynamic Dougie Hamilton and young Trevor van Riemsdyk, while Tarrytown native Brett Pesce and former Islander Calvin de Haan hold down the fort.
Reigning Calder Trophy winner Mat Barzal showed he is not afraid of the big stage in the first round, and it’s been a good mix with him skating alongside Jordan Eberle, who is brimming with confidence after scoring in each game against Pittsburgh. Mixed with big-bodied captain Anders Lee, the Islanders have a legit top line.
Second-line center Brock Nelson has also stepped up, paired with Josh Bailey to each put up three goals. With a steady third line centered by postseason savant Valtteri Filppula, and the famous fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck — what coach Barry Trotz likes to call the “identity line” — there is depth in place of any superior high-end talent.
The Canes aren’t too different, with the most skill up-front coming from their two young Finnish forwards: 21-year-old Sebastian Aho, who had a career year with 30 goals, along with Teuvo Teravainen, the 24-year-old former first-round pick of the Blackhawks. Jordan Staal missed almost three months after suffering a concussion in December, but returned to form and was terrific in the first round. And what more needs to be said about 37-year-old captain Justin Williams beside the fact his name is on the Stanley Cups three times and his nickname is “Mr. Game 7.”
Some good depth is added by former Islanders first-round pick Nino Niederreiter, who had 30 points in 36 games for the Canes since getting traded from the Wild in January, along with steady two-way games from Warren Foegele, Brock McGinn and Jordan Martinook.
The only power play worse than the Islanders (15.4 percent) in the first round among the eight teams remaining was the Hurricanes (12.0 percent). But the man-advantage has been a problem for the Isles all season, finishing third-worst in the league while Carolina finished 20th.
That could be pivotal in such a tight series.
The penalty kill is an absolute strength for the Canes, finishing eighth during the regular season (81.6 percent) and one of the biggest reasons why they were able to hang with the Capitals and their world-class power play in the first round.
Yet the Isles’ penalty kill was even better in the first round, allowing the dynamic Penguins man-advantage (even if they were a bit disinterested) only one goal on 11 tries (90.9 percent).
It is no surprise that two front-runners for the Jack Adams Award meet in the second round with two teams that overachieved according to most observers.
Barry Trotz came to the Islanders and took them from last in the league in goals-against to first. Rod Brind’Amour was promoted from assistant to head coach after last season, and he has his players inspired and ready to go to battle for him.
Yet it’s Trotz who has 20 years experience behind the NHL bench, and he won the Stanley Cup just a year ago with the Capitals.
The Islanders have been excellent in close games all season, and if they keep getting offensive production up-front, they’re the better team. Islanders in six.