Round 2 Playoff Preview: New York Islanders vs. Philadelphia Flyers
You don't come this far to only come this far.
That's what each of the eight teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs are telling themselves. But it might be the most prevalent in this series than any other. Both the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers probably did not expect to be here at points during the 2019-20 season. Neither has won the Stanley Cup in a long, long time. But in two weeks, one of these clubs will be in the Eastern Conference Final, one series win away from competing for the greatest trophy in sports.
This is the third straight playoff trip for the Islanders that features a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Each of the last two flamed out at this stage, with an ugly combined record of 1-8 in a 2016 loss to the Lightning and 2019 sweep at the hands of the Hurricanes. After a dominant sixteen game point streak early in the regular season, the Islanders fell off down the stretch and were in danger of missing the playoffs when the season was suspended on March 12.
For the Philadelphia Flyers, this has been a long time coming. The Flyers broke what was tied for the fifth longest drought without winning a playoff series on Friday night, advancing in the playoffs fr the first time since 2012. For most of the season, the Flyers were on the playoff bubble, unsure if they would even get a shot at competing for the Stanley Cup. A dominant stretch run, highlighted by a nine-game winning streak, combined with a perfect record in the round robin cemented the Flyers in a position they could have only dreamed of a year ago: contenders.
The Matchup: #1 Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7) vs. #7 New York Islanders (35-23-10)
Recent Meetings: Four all-time, but none since 1987. The Flyers have actually won three, but the one that matters most, the 1981 Stanley Cup Final, went to the Islanders. Of course, that's the infamous series when linesman Leon Stickle allowed a clearly offsides play in the dying seconds of Game 5. The Islanders scored the tying goal on that play, and went on to win the Cup in overtime.
Season Series: The Islanders had a passion for breaking the Flyers hearts this season. The Flyers were coming off a dramatic victory against Columbus when they played for the first time in late October but the Islanders torched the Flyers after allowing an early goal. Carter Hart was chased from his crease after allowing four goals, and the Islanders cruised to a 5-3 victory.
In their second meeting, the Flyers jumped out to a 3-0 lead, only for the Islanders to put three past Brian Elliott in the third before winning in a shootout, extending their aforementioned massive point streak.
Their third and final game the exact opposite, right until the end. The Islanders put three past Brian Elliott in the first period, but the Flyers slowly crawled back. Sean Couturier tied the game in the final 90 seconds, but Ryan Pulock blasted the game-winner in the last 45 seconds to stun Philadelphia. The Islanders may have swept the season series, but it's worth noting the Flyers were on the second half of a back-to-back every time they played the Islanders this year.
The Journey Here: The Flyers cruised through the round robin, showing off against the Bruins, Capitals, and Lightning. All three of those powerhouses managed just one goal against the Flyers shutdown defense. Philadelphia looked like the best team in the entire NHL, #1 seed in the East for the first time since 2000 and absolutely cruising. Their depth was clicking, Carter Hart (and Brian Elliott) played amazing in net, and it seemed like the Flyers just couldn't miss.
And then the Canadiens entered the rink. Sure, the Flyers won the war, but Montreal won a lot of battles. They outscored the Flyers 13-11, and at 5-on-5 dominated the Flyers with a 58.03% Corsi and 60.34% xGF. With the exception of Game 5, the Flyers power-play looked god awful the entire series, even allowing a shortie. Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, and Sean Couturier still don't have a single goal in the playoffs. Matt Niskanen's frustration boiled over and he took a cross-check that got him suspended for Game 6. Carter Hart was pulled in Game 2 and would've been pulled again in Game 5 if the ugly fourth goal he allowed wasn't a fraction offsides. That's all the gloom; we'll get to some of the glee later.
Meanwhile, the Islanders got off to the same dominant start as the Flyers in the qualifier round. Granted, the Florida Panthers weren't exactly the most formidable opponent (that didn't stop me from picking them, as my assumption that the Isles wouldn't be able to find their structure quick enough fell flat on its face), but the Islanders really dominated the whole series, winning three games to one.
However, unlike the Flyers, they didn't slow down in round one. New York completely locked down the potent Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin had four goals, the same amount as the rest of his team (TJ Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov both had two) in the five-game series. Sure, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson both had injuries. But it was scary to see the Islanders look that good against the four-time defending Metro champion and 2018 Cup winning Capitals, a much more formidable opponent than Florida.
Who's the Favorite: Honestly, I think it's the Islanders. That's how big the discrepancy between how the two teams played in round one is. In a normal year where the regular season would only be two weeks away, but (insert generic "this isn't a normal year" comment here). You could try and chalk up the Flyers' dominance in the round robin to playoff veterans Boston, Washington, and Tampa Bay not caring as much about seeding as the young Flyers. That's not entirely true, but it's not entirely false, either. And while Montreal is a better team than most people realize, they're not better than the Islanders or Capitals, and yet they gave the Flyers everything they could handle.
Again, I cannot overstate how great the Islanders have looked since the return to play. They have not allowed more than three goals in a game yet. In six of their eight games, they've held the opposition under two. Barry Trotz knows what it takes to win in the playoffs, and it seems like the Islanders have learned from their mistakes after last year's second round sweep to Carolina (although that also came after a dominant round one showing, so maybe lightning strikes twice). Swap Robin Lehner for Seymon Varlamov and their roster is basically unchanged, so we'll see if playoff experience really means as much as the experts always say.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: In theory, this should be break even. The Islanders should be feeling pressure to build on last year's surprise run to this stage, rather than stagnate and raise questions about this group's upside. But from an outsider's perspective, I don't feel any of that. Islanders fans are a notoriously easy to upset bunch, but I don't get the vibes that another second round exit would be the end of the world. Their core isn't old, but it's not that young, and after buying high for JG Pageau at the deadline, it feels like they should be feeling more heat than they are.
However, it seems like the Flyers have a significant edge in this category. Being the one seed will do that to you, but it seems like the Flyers have more pressure because they played sloppily against Montreal than they would have if they dominated. A loss to the Islanders could cause the fanbase to go into an existential crisis, wondering if the team actually ever was a Cup contender or if they were duped the whole time. Part of that answer is lost in time due to the stoppage zapping the momentum of a 9-1-0 record heading into the pause. The future is bright, but it feels like the 2019-20 Flyers are at a massive crossroads, one much greater than the average second round team.
Player to Watch For:
PHI - The New York Islanders are a gritty, hard-nosed team that also has some nice skill. Who on the Flyers fits that description better than Travis Konecny? Unfortunately, that skill hasn't shown up that much in the return to play. The Flyers regular-season leading scorer and All Star has gone silent, failing to score a goal in 9 games. He's had some chances, and was briefly credited with a deflection goal in Game 6 before it was correctly re-credited to Ivan Provorov. If the Flyers are going to win this series, they need the Travis Konecny that everyone loves to hate to show up.
There's also another reason I'm picking Konecny. I watched the highlights of every single game the Islanders have played in the bubble. Key word in that sentence is highlights; I'm a college student, I don't have enough time to watch nine hockey games in three days. Highlights only show a team at their best and their worst, and only show about 10% of a game.
But one thing I noticed when watching the Islanders PK is that they will give wingers stationed at the circles a ton of space to shoot the puck. In fact, their PK as a whole seemed pretty passive once the power-play gets setup (it's pretty aggressive in line defense and in their offensive zone). Travis Konecny loves to walk down on the right circle and try to snipe. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a goal in Game 3 that I've seen Konecny try countless times. I know he's not on PP1 right now, but I think Konecny could really do some damage even on the second unit if he's willing to take the space the Islanders have been giving others and shoot the puck.
NYI - Mat Barzal is the Islanders' biggest household name. Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee have some name recognition. But none of them are playing as well as Anthony Beauvillier right now. He's a deadly offensive weapon lighting the league on fire. Beauvillier's six goals are tied for the first in the NHL and straight up leads the Eastern Conference. His game hit another level after a bit of a step back last season, scoring 39 points in 68 games, and he's posted a gaudy 54.93% xGF at 5-on-5.
Watching some the tape on this somehow makes him even scarier than reading the numbers. This kid is an absolute speed demon; see JG Pageau's goal in Game 3 against Florida as an example. Beauvillier shoots the puck in from the center logo and absolutely flies to the boards, beating Anton Stralman to the puck, then darts behind the net. All three Panthers defenders are watching him, but Beauvillier gets his head up and spots JG Pageau darting to the slot for a goal.
Beauvillier and Brock Nelson are averaging nearly a two-on-one a game. He's had great success on the power-play, usually in the bumper role; four of his six goals have come on the man advantage. He does a great job at finding the soft spot in defenses and isn't afraid to go to the net, with both of his goals in Game 5 against Washington coming from right outside the crease.
The only risk with a player this hot is sometimes they feel so unstoppable they go for something a little too flashy; Ovechkin's game-winner in Game 4 all starts with Beauvillier trying a risky pass to the slot rather than taking a shot on a pretty good look. He also had a couple bad beats defensively against Florida, failing to drop down low quick enough on two occasions where the Panthers scored (although neither goal was primarily his fault). No Isles forward has been on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals, though his record against the Capitals was much cleaner. More often than not, Beauvillier is making the right play, and if he keeps motoring like this, watch out.
Line Breakdown (per Daily Face-off)
New York Forwards
Anders Lee-Mathew Barzel-Jordan Eberle
Anthony Beauviller-Brock Nelson-Josh Bailey
Derick Brassard-JG Pageau-Leo Komarov
Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck
On paper there's a very clear drop-off from the Islanders second line to their third line. Mat Barzal is definitely the best player on the Islanders, and he will be a problem for the Flyers to defend. What makes Barzal so unique is that he knows exactly what pace to push play. He can fly up the ice and all over the offensive zone like nobody's business, but he's also not afraid to slow things down and start a cycle or wait for teammates if there's nothing open. A classic example is the series winner against Florida. Barzal receives a stretch pass at the right boards in his own zone, and instead of trying to cut to the middle or send the puck around the boards, he waits for Beauvillier to fly down the ice, and hits him backdoor for a one-timer.
Jordan Eberle brings plenty of experience (albeit not much playoff experience) to the table, and he's been fine so far in the playoffs. Not as good as last year when he scored a goal in every game in their round one sweep of Pittsburgh, but solid. To be honest, Anders Lee seemed pretty invisible against the Panthers, but woke up against Washington by starting the series with a three-game goal streak. He's never going to be the 40-goal guy he was alongside Tavares in 2017-18, but Lee is a solid player capable of being much better than he has so far in the playoffs. This line did have strong underlying numbers, however.
Their second line might be their best so far in the playoffs. Brock Nelson and Beauvillier have been a dynamic duo all playoffs; as I mentioned earlier, they're a two-on-one machine. And Bailey is more than holding his own, leading the entire team with 10 points. His puck control is much better than I realized and he's capable of making some really high difficulty passes at both 5-on-5 and the power-play. And Nelson and Bailey also combined for New York's only shortie of the playoffs in Game 1 vs. Washington.
The JG Pageau trade came at a hefty price but it was definitely worth it provide a desperately needed upgrade to the Islanders' third-line. He's found instant chemistry with Leo Komarov, and Derick Brassard has proved he's not cooked with a solid bounce-back year. Add in that he leads Islanders forwards in PK time and the trade looks more and more worth it. The trio is outstanding analytically with a 55.81% Corsi and over the moon 71.5% xGF. They've only played about 31 minutes together; about a third as much as the top-six, but there's no reason to break them up right now.
It's easy to right off the Islanders' fourth-line as being too old-school, that physicality is a trait off the past and that it should be easy to cave them in. Not so fast, my friend. Casey Cizikas is an outstanding defensive center; no Islander who has played every playoff game has been on the ice for 5-on-5 fewer expected goals than Cizikas (2.11). Matt Martin will shoot the puck from anywhere and also crash the net hard, scoring a couple big goals in the blue-paint. Cal Clutterbuck was injured in the Capitals series, with Ross Johnston replacing him in the series finale, but it looks like he'll be fine. Michael Dal Colle and Tom Kuhnackl (who has a through the legs assist!) are probably better depth options though.
New York Defense
Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock
Devon Toews-Scott Mayfield
Nick Leddy-Andy Greene
The collection of names on the Islanders' back-end looks unimpressive, but this a team greater than the sum of their parts. New York's system is what makes them such a great team, what has allowed them to put up a 96-point pace this year and 103 last year (when they allowed the fewest goals in the league), compared to 2017-18 when they still had John Tavares but put up just 80 points and gave up the most goals in the league. They keep opponents from gaining the zone with possession, forcing dump-in after dump-in and making smart plays with the puck. All of their defensemen are great at avoiding the big mistake, and in Barry Trotz's lock all windows and doors system, that's really all you need.
Ryan Pulock has an absolutely bomb of a shot, and because of that he's a primary offensive target for the Islanders in all situations. He's also better with the puck than he gets credit for, making a couple nice stretch passes in the footage I saw. He and Adam Pelech have practically been Batman and Robin under Trotz; during his watch, the Islanders have allowed the 3rd fewest goals in the league. It's not a coincidence that the Islanders' fall-off escalated when Pelech tore his ACL; New York was 10-12-7 from January 3rd on (25th in NHL), compared to 25-11-3 before then (3rd in NHL). They're New York's top shutdown duo and are driving play at a respectable clip (although Pulock is much better than Pelech in that regard, which isn't a surprise considering his superior offensive abilities).
Not far behind them in ice-time is the underrated Devon Toews. He's had a fairly rough playoffs at 5-on-5, and though he did take a bit of a step back in that area this season, his work on the power-play can't be understated. He's a great puck distributor and does a good job of finding shooting lanes. His partner Scott Mayfield has the same shutdown label as Pelech and Pulock, but has also had less success than the top pair. Only Pulock has been on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals than Mayfield, which is surprising considering the play-driving drop-off between the two.
With Johnny Boychuk injured in Game 1 against the Panthers, Nick Leddy and Andy Greene have both been full-time players since. To their credit, both have found a second win these playoffs and been close to even from a play-driving standpoint. It's good to see Leddy bouncing back after a pretty consistent fall from grace since the 2016-17 season; his Corsi relative to his teammates has been negative three years running, and his point total the last two years is about half of what it was the three years before. New York paid a pretty hefty price for Greene at the deadline, and after looking cooked in the regular season, he's had a last gasp return to decency in the playoffs. The question will be can the 37-year old keep that up deep into the playoffs.
Michael Raffl-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Joel Farabee-Kevin Hayes-Travis Konecny
James van Riemsdyk-Claude Giroux-Scott Laughton
Derek Grant-Nate Thompson-Tyler Pitlick
These were the Flyers forward lines in Game 6 against Montreal, but I wouldn't be shocked if they're switched around early in this series, which might mean today during practice. I know he had two goals, including the series-winner, but Michael Raffl probably isn't for long on the first line. He's a fine emergency option, as he showed in Game 4, but there's a reason Raffl hasn't been a first-line staple since 2014-15. Joel Farabee was the first usual middle-sixer to get a look on the top-line, and though he wasn't exactly a force against the Habs, he did come through with two clutch goals in Games 1 & 5.
Meanwhile, Jake Voracek started round 1 way deeper in the lineup than normal, but returned to top line quickly and never looked back. Voracek was a beast against the Canadiens, easily the best Flyer with 4 goals and 7 points in the series. Three of those goals came on a Flyers power-play that struggled mightily for most of the series before showing some signs of life in Games 5 & 6. Kevin Hayes also had a good series to my eyes, creating a ton of chances before finally being rewarded in Game 6. However, Hayes hasn't exactly been the ying to Sean Couturier's shutdown yang; he's been on the ice for 5.7 expected goals against, more than any other Flyer by a decent margin.
However, if the Flyers are going to have any chance at defeating the Isles, they're going to need more from their stars. Claude Giroux didn't have as bad a series as most people think; a four-assist series and a Corsi For that would be 50% with more Flyers shot isn't terrible. But like the Islanders' captain Anders Lee, the Flyers will be looking for more from G. Ditto for TK, who I already covered extensively. And though Sean Couturier had even stronger play-driving numbers than Giroux, he too needs to start finding the back of the net, especially if he stays on PP1.
James van Riemsdyk had a solid Game 6 that was preceded by multiple healthy scratchings. To be fair, it's hard for a pure goal-scorer to do much with Derek Grant as his center, but if he's still playing with G like in Game 6, there can't be any more excuses. Scott Laughton made some rare glaring mistakes against Montreal but was his usual self on the PK. The Flyers fourth line was absolutely caved in most of the series, with Nate Thompson really struggling to keep up. If AV is really wedded to him at 4C, keeping Derek Grant on his line should help; Thompson delivered his best game of the series in Game 6 when that was the case. Thompson definitely dragged down Tyler Pitlick, who could be someone to look out for if the Flyers are dumping as many pucks as I'm expecting.
Ivan Provorov-Matt Niskanen
Travis Sanheim-Phil Myers
Robert Hagg-Justin Braun
It's easy to confuse being hemmed in with playing good defense, and vice versa. The Flyers had moments of both against Montreal. In the third periods of their shutout wins in Games 3 and 4, the Flyers defense played exceptionally, allowing a combined 0.5 expected goals against at 5-on-5. Philly's best d-pair all series was clearly the Sanheim-Myers duo, which makes me feel good for picking them as my players to watch in the round 1 preview. The two youngsters looked like season vets, making good decisions with the puck and handling the tenacious Habs better than any other pair.
Ivan Provorov had a solid series, scoring three points and continuing to eat huge minutes in a shutdown role. The same can't be said for his partner Matt Niskanen, who has looked off since the return to play. Hopefully a little extra rest from being suspended for Game 6 helps him. Shayne Gostisbehere, Justin Braun, and Phil Myers all received auditions with Provorov in his absence, and one of them could take over full-time in Niskanen continues to struggle.
Gostisbehere got into three games against Montreal, playing good in two and bad in one. The problem for Ghost is that he doesn't seem to have much chemistry with Justin Braun, and with Niskanen returning to the lineup, that's his only logical partner. I'll go with the assumption that Robert Hagg starts the series with Braun, but Ghost probably sees action at some point. His ability to move the puck is more important than ever against New York's tight defense and good forecheck, areas where Hagg and Braun (who are good penalty killers) could be exploited.
Injury Report: Clutterbuck skated in practice for the Islanders on Saturday, so all signs point to go for him. Alain Vigneault told reporters Nicolas Aube-Kubel has skated the last few days, but didn't/couldn't comment on his status for Game 1. I would be shocked if he doesn't play at some point in this series (unless maybe if it's a Flyers sweep, which I'd be cool with).
Lastly, the report on Oskar Lindblom has always been he'll be ready at some point in September. Game 6 is scheduled for September 2, but it seems doubtful Lindblom will play this round. If the Flyers advance, the odds of Lindblom completing the feel-good comeback of the year become much better.
The Pick: The moment the final horn sounded in Game 6 against Montreal, I told myself I was picking the Islanders to win this series. Probably in six, maybe in seven. You can't deny how much better the Islanders looked in round one. Maybe Montreal was just a bad matchup for Philly, maybe the Isles were just lucky Backstrom and Carlson got hurt at the worst time, maybe I was getting too focused on recency bias. But everything I was thinking about when determining a series winner told me to pick the Islanders.
The biggest question anyone predicting this series has to answer is do you think the Flyers can re-flip the switch. If the Flyers play like they did in February and March or in the first week of August, this could be a short series. Yes, the Islanders gave them fits in the lone matchup in that time span, but the Flyers didn't truly heat up until a week after that game. If they played one more game like the schedule originally said, I really think the Flyers would've won it.
That being said, the second round of the playoffs is much different than the regular season, which works both for and against the Flyers. One thing I did notice in the Montreal series is the Flyers never seemed to lose their swagger. After being embarrassed in Game 2, all Matt Niskanen could talk about was their hunger for success and how confident he was in a bounce-back. Alain Vigneault turned full heel to the press in wake of the Gallagher injury. Derek Grant with the series ending head pat on Nick Suzuki. And who could forget Joel Farabee's "we're ready to go dancing" comment after the round robin concluded?
Swagger means so much this late in the season, especially in a spectator-less arena where the players are responsible for motivating themselves. The Islanders have an identity, but the Flyers might be facing a little bit of an identity crisis right now after Montreal's surprising control of round one. The former establishes comfort and confidence; the latter provides a chip on the shoulder and the mentality that a hungry dog does run faster.
It's that last point that ultimately determined my final prediction on the series. The 2017-18 Eagles proved just as much against a Patriots team too comfortable for their own good. These Islanders certainly aren't anywhere as accomplished as the Brady-Belicheck dynasty, but at least most of them have been here before. This isn't a knock on the Islanders, but there just seems to be a little more hunger in the Flyers right now. I think they know a lot of people have soured on them after getting their butts kicked a bit by the Habs, and they want to prove those people wrong for ever doubting them.
I say they do it. Flyers in 7.
Oddly Specific Prediction (Idea from Down Goes Brown): AV goes to Brian Elliott for Game 3, which is the second half of a back-to-back. Moose picks up the win, allowing no more than two goals in the process. He tries the same thing on the front half of the Game 6-Game 7 back-to-back, but Elliott struggles and gets yanked.
*Advanced Stats via Naturalstatrick.com