Much like the Wild in the West, no one is giving the Islanders much a chance in this series. Sportsbooks have made them a full two game underdog for the series, so the prevailing perception is that Pittsburgh will take care of business in four or five games. Is this a true representation of the matchup? Well it is and it isn't. Let's take a closer look at the key factors.
One reason why I wouldn't completely count out an Islanders upset in this series is due to the situation between the pipes. Fleury has had a nice bounceback season from last year's playoff debacle, but until he wins another round it will continue to be an issue. This is why the Penguins were smart to secure Vokoun as the backup. If Fleury falters, I don't think they will hesitate to park him on the bench to right the ship.
On the other side of the coin we have Nabokov. You got to give this guy credit for playing hard for a team that he didn't even want to play for not too long ago. The question is whether or not he can regain his former glory and be the rock New York so desperately needs this round. Given the defense in front of him, he better be good or they won't stand a chance.
In the past, the Pens have proved they can move mountains with or without Crosby, but there's no debate that when he's in the lineup the Pens roll. It's looking very unlikely that he'll be suiting up for the early part of the series, but he might be able to arrive late to the party if he can have a week of physical practices.
This leaves Malkin as the undisputed engine up front. We've seen in the past that he can become frustrated if the production doesn't come and you play him hard. The benefit that he has now is a wealth of talent around him.
Yet, my concern is whether or not it will be enough to win decisively against the Islanders. Sutter, Cooke, Dupuis, and Jokinen have stellar defensive skills and all of them can chip in offensively, but what about the rest? Kunitz is a nice player, but he's not the same without Crosby. Morrow and Iginla are not the players that once were and their impact might not be what people expect out of them. Neal came back to score a hat-trick, but concussion risks are always at the forefront when things ramp up in the playoffs. I'm not completely sold that this will be a well-oiled machine once the puck drops.
Defense, Defense, Defense
The big problem I have with New York is the discrepancy on defense. After MacDonald, what do we have? Visnovsky? Streit? I don't see shutdown abilities in this group, so they might have to win some higher scoring games. Guys like Grabner, Tavares, Moulson, and Boyes will need to match the Pittsburgh firepower. Bailey, Nielsen, and Okposo will have to play a key role in neutralizing some of the offense coming the other way, too. Can they collectively get it done? It's a tall task.
The surprising stat the leaps out at me when looking at the Pens is their 49.87% possession number. You'd think a team this loaded would dominate the puck more than that, but if you can consistently outscore teams with the second best shooting percentage, that's all that really matters at the end of the day.
In contrast, the Islanders have a 52.01% possession rate, but only a 990 PDO score. There is more potential to be realized with this team, but they need some stars to align for it to happen. I think the best bets in this series will be to bank on some 'overs' to happen, but I also think New York can squeeze a couple wins here. And who knows? If Crosby doesn't come back and their goaltending isn't up to par, some serious doubt might start creeping in. The only option I see here is to take the value and ride the underdog, or pass on it altogether.
Prediction: New York +2 games for the series (-107).