Regular season recaps
Nov. 27: Islanders 2, Panthers 3 (SO)
Dec. 15: Panthers 5, Islanders 1
Mar. 14: Panthers 2, Islanders 3
Islanders: C Mikhail Grabovski (concussion, out), G Jaroslav Halak (groin, day-to-day), D Travis Hamonic (knee, day-to-day), G Jean-Francois Berube (lower body, day-to-day); F Anders Lee (fractured leg, out)
Panthers: C Dave Bolland (lower-body, out), D Willie Mitchell (upper-body, out), C Vincent Trocheck (fractured foot, out), D Steve Kampfer (lower-body, out)
Key to an Islanders victory
Last season, New York's high-powered offense boasted seven forwards who scored at least 40 points. This season they had just three. With Anders Lee hurt and Ryan Strome coming off a hugely disappointing sophomore season, the Islanders will need a surprise performance to maintain last year's signature scoring depth. The first and fourth lines are set—it's the ones in the middle that are a jumble right now. After playing on the wing all year, Strome will move back to his natural position at center between two players—Shane Prince and Steve Bernier—who combined for 11 points in 44 games for the Isles this year. The Panthers had six forwards—two full lines—with at least 50 points this season. If the Islanders can't get either Strome or Brock Nelson's lines going, they're going to have a tough time matching up with Florida's scoring depth. In that case, their goaltending situation becomes more tenuous with Thomas Greiss holding the fort until starter Jaro Halak returns. The injury to workhorse defenseman Travis Hamonic is another concern. Fortunately, captain John Tavares comes into the series on a hot streak with nine points in his past four games. The Isles will likely need him to have a big series.
Key to a Panthers victory
Luuuuuuuu. With neither team boasting particularly good possession or special teams stats, the difference comes down to goaltending. Roberto Luongo is the 2009 Alex Rodriguez of hockey in that he needs one unimpeachable playoff run before everyone will give him his due as an all time great player. He'll be opposed by Greiss, who's played a whopping one postseason game in his career, and it came all the way back in 2010. And despite his .925 save percentage in 41 games this season, Greiss is a career back-up with a career .912 mark. Luongo is at .919 in 926 career games. He must outduel his inexperienced opposite, lest Alex Barkov be asked to win a shootout with Tavares.
Last year in the preseason I picked the Tampa Bay Lightning and stuck with that prediction throughout the playoffs. This season I am in the unenviable position of having tapped the Islanders in our season preview. But the forces that have conspired to make New York such underachievers are not insurmountable. During a season in which everything broke right for the Panthers and nothing seemingly went the Islanders' way, both teams ended up with similar records. So I’m predicting a correction in this series. Islanders in seven.