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The Canadian Press called it a “surprising split“. The New York Times called the win “surprising“. Scott Burnside suggested that it was because “hard work sometimes trumps talent“.

Perhaps it is the hard work, but there is still a lot of talent on the Islanders roster. Their top six has four first-round picks. They have another first rounder on their third line centred by a player who has been an AHL scoring machine since 2006. There is a lot of skill, even if they aren’t all house-hold names. A couple more performances like they had in Game 2 or 3 of their series though, and maybe a few analysts will begin to credit the Islanders for being a real good hockey team. It’s not just a playoff thing—they’ve been good for a while.

Other than an ill-timed penalty against a deadly Penguins powerplay, the Islanders have out-played the Pens in this series. They out-shot Pittsburgh 31-20 at even strength in the third game and appeared to beat them in scoring chances. In three games, they have out-shot the Penguins 86-61 at even strength.

This shouldn’t have been surprising going in. The Islanders this season were 11th in Hockey Analysis’ Corsi Tied in the NHL and 11th in Behind the Net’s Fenwick Close. Pittsburgh in the same measures were 17th and 15th. The Islanders do have a significant five-on-five advantage that could have been easily picked up on coming in.

Sure, the Penguins appear loaded. They already had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. They loaded up with Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow at the trade deadline and have won 36 of 48 games this season. It’s a pretty solid run, and they’ve been backed by Marc-André Fleury this season, who has actually been pretty good this season, with an excellent .927 even strength save percentage which is much higher than in previous seasons.

There’s a lot to like in Pittsburgh. They have a lot of offensive talent which means they don’t have to shoot as much as other teams to get a goal. That’s just the advantage of having so much loaded offensive talent. But they aren’t clear favourites. No team is a clear favourite, and it’s unlikely in any given season that any one team will win a Cup. The best team, so say the number crunchers, will win 22% of the time.

Why? Well, as we’re learning, teams are simply put, better than they were years ago. There’s so much available talent coming from so many different hockey nations. The gap between the first place team and the 30th place team in the league is a lot closer than the first place team and 21st place team 20 years ago.

I’ve written before about never being able to see the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. A team that dominant is tough for me to wrestle with because the best team I’ve known growing up was that late-90s to early-00s Colorado Avalanche group with Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, and various years of Rob Blake, Alex Tanguay, Milan Hejduk, and then Raymond Bourque. They were a hell of a team that came through town three times a year and kicked the living shit out of the team I followed on a regular occurrence. That team only won two Cups, though, and the first came before people realized just how dominant they were. They showed every year and were about as good as any team could be.

But there are no guarantees in hockey.

If you boil down the Penguins’ winning percentage to what it would be over 7 games (careful, math ahead), all you have to do is divide 36 by 48 and multiply by 7. That nets 5.25. The Islanders over 7 games, 24 divided by 48 times 7 equals 3.5. Over seven games, the Penguins are a little under two wins better than the Islanders over the course of 48 games. That’s not the difference between a sweep and a five-game series, but even at it’s most basic, if you assumed that the number of wins generated by a team is worth exactly what its true talent is, the most likely outcome is the Penguins in 6.

That would be the furthest gap out of teams in the Eastern Conference. So much fluky things can happen in a series even when an excellent team (take the 2010 Washington Capitals) face a worse opponent. When you get a situation where the 8th-seeded team is sneaky good like this season’s Islanders, regardless of what’s happened historically there’s some potential for an upset.

Last season, the two 8th-seeded teams won in five and lost in seven, respectively. In the 2011 playoffs the 8th-seeded teams lost in five and seven, in 2010, lost in six and won in seven. In the last three seasons, that gives the 8th-seeded team in the first round of the playoffs a … 17-20 record.

That’s not half-bad. Then you have to consider that lower-ranked teams are actually having to improve. The talent gap is shrinking between teams. The rich aren’t getting richer and the poor aren’t getting poorer. In 2008, the salary floor, the minimum NHL teams could spend, was 68% of the salary cap. Since the floor is fixed to the cap as a number and not a percentage, this season the salary floor is up to 77% of the cap.

What that does is force teams like the Islanders to go out and acquire players like Lubomir Visnovsky, the Blues to make trades for players like Jay Bouwmeester or Chris Stewart, and restrict the top teams from adding players to their corps unless they lose a significant piece.

To their credit, the Islanders did just that. They made some savvy additions in the offseason to a corps that was on the cusp. Visnovsky is just impeccable to watch and seems to always be the guy carrying the puck forward for the Islanders, and I’d like the series to be extended so I can keep watching him play.

The performance in Game 2 and 3 shouldn’t be too surprising if you’d followed the Islanders rise through the second half of the season. They were there. Their record may have been better if goaltender Evgeni Nabokov didn’t toss up an even strength save percentage of .916, a few points below league average, and sixth worst in the NHL among starters (29 starts is my baseline). That to me is pretty astounding. A lot of 8-seeded teams get to where they are thanks to a good goaltender pulling them up (think what Columbus nearly was), not an average one knocking them down.

This post should not be interpreted as a prediction that the Islanders will come back and win the series. My feeling was always that the Penguins would win, but the Islanders would make it a lot closer than people were expecting, and they’d hang with the Pens in each game. The wheels fell off in Game 1 but I seriously think that New York was the better team in both Game 2 and Game 3. What I hoped to do was have some folks question whether the Penguins are such clear favourites, especially after seeing what we did on Friday and Sunday.

Katie Strang of ESPN is coming around:

A come-from-behind win in Game 2 affirmed their confidence in competing against the top-seeded Penguins. Their performance in Game 3 only furthers that belief — one that has always existed within the Islanders’ dressing room, but has been absent pretty much everywhere else.

Remember, the game isn’t played on paper, and the Islanders have showed that this week. There’s a chance they go out in five (playoffs, anything happens) but at least after coming back from a 4-2 deficit and forcing OT in Game 3, they’ve showed that they can hang with the best of them.

Comments (4)

  1. The Isles aren’t bad. They’ve come a long way in recent years.

    I do think, though, that some of the reason that this series is split so far is that the Pens are not a perfectly built team. By that I mean that while they have tons of firepower, they certainly have some weaknesses (exposed by the Isles in games 2 and 3, as well as by the Flyers last year). There have been plenty of MAF moments so far (not as bad as last year, I grant you) and I’m not so sure that they’re any better than mediocre defensively. As long as they continue to be able to score 5 goals a game, they’ll probably win…but I don’t see them winning many scoring only 2-3 goals if a few of their players cool off. The Isles (who again, are decent, but certainly not the class of the league) have scored 4 goals on the Pens in each of the last two games. What happens when the Pens play a stronger offensive team? Yeah, the Pens are good, but they’re far from unbeatable.

    • Some cheap penalties given by the ref in this series, while Ottawa/Montreal are killing each other and the refs are letting them play?
      That said the Islanders are still going to take the pens to 7! And maybe shock the NHL

  2. Isles still have 3 first round forwards coming up (Niederreiter, Strome, Nelson). They have the core and the cap room to be good for a long time. If whoever takes over for Nabokov long term is even average they will have a contending team by the time they reach Brooklyn.

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