Bruins

Penguins vs. Islanders: Which 2nd round matchup best suits the Bruins?

Both teams possess unique challenges to the battle-tested Bruins.

The New York Islanders' Anthony Beauvillier gets a shot past Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry with Sidney Crosby defending during the first period of Game 5 Monday. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

After some much-needed rest following a heavy first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins returned to Warrior Ice Arena on Wednesday.

Bruce Cassidy’s squad could learn their second-round fate by the end of the night if the New York Islanders knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins. Or they could receive some extended rest if the Penguins force a Game 7 on Friday night.

The Bruins fared well against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, winning five of eight matchups during their 56-game slate. They weren’t so fortunate against the Islanders, dropping the first five, but earning a trio of victories following the trade deadline.

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Both teams possess unique challenges to the battle-tested Bruins. But which squad would give the Bruins their biggest challenge? Let’s look at the pros and cons of facing the Islanders or Penguins in Round 2.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Pros: Collectively, the Penguins aren’t as physical compared to the Capitals and the Islanders. The Penguins only managed to outhit the trap-happy Islanders once through the first five games of the series.

Former Boston College standouts Brian Dumoulin and Mike Mattheson provide solid hands on the back-end. But veteran Kris Letang, Pittsburgh’s average time-on-ice leader (28:41), remains hit or miss. With Boston’s potent top-six, the Pens would need a consistent Letang to produce on both ends of the ice.

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Tristian Jarry’s susceptibility to game-changing mistakes reared its ugly head on more than one occasion against the Islanders. His shaky rebound control only amplifies the potential goaltending mismatch against Tuukka Rask.

With a keen eye for secondary scoring chances, the Bruins found their groove against Craig Anderson and Ilya Samsonov as the series progressed. They also took advantage of a goalie miscue as Craig Smith pounced on a loose puck left by Samsonov — on a miscommunication with Justin Schultz — for a momentum-shifting double-overtime winner.

The Bruins possess their deepest forward core under Cassidy. The Penguins have their hands full with a tough, but less skilled Islanders bunch. No doubt they’d be in for another tough matchup if they pull off the come-from-behind series victory.

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Cons: Even with their flaws, Pittsburgh’s deep core of skilled forwards presents a formidable challenge.

Even in his early 30’s, Sidney Crosby can change the game on a dime. Jeff Carter’s arrival from Los Angeles gave the Pens a shot in the arm. The likes of Jake Guentzel, Zach-Aston Reese and Bryan Rust provide quality secondary scoring depth at a time where Evgeni Malkin finds himself in one of the worst slumps of his career.

Though Boston’s shorthanded unit withstood a potent Washington power play, the penalties kept piling up. They’ll need to end that trend quickly in a potential second-round matchup against another stellar man-advantage unit. The Penguins ended the regular season with the fourth-highest power-play efficiency rate at 23.7 percent.

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Behind four stellar outings from Rask, the Bruins made quick work of Crosby and company in 2013. As the Bruins entered a transition period a couple of years later, Mike Sullivan guided the Pens to back-to-back Cups after replacing Dan Bylsma early in the 2015-16 campaign. Both teams have been through their share of intense playoff battles since. If they meet, they would both have something to prove following three straight seasons of disappointing playoff exits.

New York Islanders

Pros: The Islanders exposed an injury-plagued Bruins’ bunch in the first five games. They stymied the potent top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, thus providing a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup.

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Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly provided a breath of fresh air upon arriving to Boston. The trade deadline trio produced timely offense in each of the last three meetings with the Islanders. Hall led the way with four goals, with Reilly tallying one assist in each of those three tilts and Lazar notching his first lamplighter as a Bruin on April 16.

The Bruins found cracks in Barry Trotz’s stingy trap system. The Isles shored up their back-end against the Pens after a high-scoring Game 3 affair. The Bruins and Isles sat atop the league in every major statistical defensive category in 2021.

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Though it isn’t the sexier of the two matchups, there’s still a handful of storylines to discuss in a potential Bruins-Isles second-round series. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to start the series in front of a loyal bunch of Bruins supporters inside a nearly-full TD Garden.

Cons: Another heavy series would await.

The Bruins earned some much-needed rest after a bruising series with the Capitals. For every hit they took from Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Zdeno Chara, and company, the Bruins counterpunched with timely contact and, more importantly, goals. They withstood the heavy Caps with a patient and timely attack, advancing pucks in transition and setting themselves up with a healthy accumulation of quality scoring chances.

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Albeit a little younger than the Caps, the Islanders display a similar structure. They aren’t as skilled as the Penguins. But Mat Barzal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle (to name a few) all provide game-changing skillsets. The Isles also added Travis Zajac and perennial Bruins killer Kyle Palmieri at the trade deadline to round out their scoring depth.

The Penguins managed a pair of wins with Semyon Varlamov in net. But they haven’t solved their Ilya Sorokin conundrum. The Isles netminder only allowed six pucks past him in over 210 minutes between the pipes this series, highlighted by his stellar triple-overtime 48-save outing in Game 5.

The Bruins aren’t strangers to facing inexperienced postseason netminders. They’ve encountered success (i.e. the first-round series against Samsonov) and failures (like Jordan Binnington in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago) in said scenarios. With their deepest roster under Cassidy, the Bruins have a proven formula to work with against any proven or unproven goalie.

The verdict

The trap-happy Isles aren’t strangers to postseason success either. They’re one year removed from an Eastern Conference Final appearance. They’ve positioned themselves within a win of advancing to the second round for the third straight season.

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The Islanders exposed Pittsburgh’s defensive holes through the first five games. But the Pens high-end talent can change any series at a moment’s notice.

They likely won’t have another short road to another series win, but Cassidy’s squad won’t fear either team. The Penguins possess difficult assignments for any of Boston’s defensive pairings. The Islanders’ hard-nosed philosophy presents a challenge for the Bruins’ forward core.

Putting everything into account, the Bruins match up slightly better with the Islanders than they do against the Penguins. But neither series will provide an easy road by any means.

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