Tavares leads Islanders to victory over Panthers in Game 1
Despite dominating for much of the game, the Florida Panthers blew three one-goal leads and let the Islanders squeak by with a 5–4 road win (box score | recap | highlights). Early third period goals from Kyle Okposo and Ryan Strome broke a 3–3 tie and allowed New York to hold on for the victory. Thomas Greiss, despite his playoff inexperience, was solid, stopping 42 of 46 shots and giving his team a chance to win. Here are three thoughts on the series opener:
John Tavares is the best player on either team
Opposite Jaromir Jagr and a bunch of up-and-comers, the Islanders captain is this series’ only in-his-prime superstar. The first seven goals of this contest fell into three categories: breakdowns, bounces, and John Tavares. The Islanders got badly outplayed for the first two periods and, had it not been for its captain, New York could have been down two goals going into the third period—or worse.
After Florida went up 2–1 on Jussi Jokinen’s power play goal, Tavares deked the entire Panthers penalty kill on the rush. First he shook Derek McKenzie in the neutral zone with a quick change of direction. Then he faked Alex Petrovic so badly the defenseman literally spun around. Finally, a backhand pass found Frans Nielsen. Give credit to Nielsen for roofing the shot, but that goal doesn’t happen without Tavares’ puck-handling demo. And when Florida again went up, 3–2, the Isles’ best player again had the answer, finding some quiet ice in the waning seconds of the period.
He demonstrated his passing, he demonstrated his shooting, and when the third period started, Tavares showed off his defense, picking Brian Campbell's pocket, leading to an easy score for Kyle Okposo. Suddenly the Islanders found themselves ahead in a game they should be losing—and it had everything to do with John Tavares playing like a bigger version of young Pavel Datsyuk.
It’s not hyperbole to say those last two goals swung the entire game in the Islanders' favor. After playing from behind all game, two quick goals at the beginning of the third allowed Isles to play in a defensive shell and hang on for dear life.
New York stole this game
Despite Tavares's heroics, it’s worth reiterating that the Panthers badly outplayed the Islanders. Florida's top-six skated circles around a New York defense that often looked like it was standing still in the defensive zone. Travis Hamonic, playing in his first game since March, came away with a nice stat-line: +2 with an assist. But the advanced numbers are brutal. Going by the head-to-head match-ups from war-on-ice.com, Hamonic collapsed against the Panthers’ top line, who controlled 75% of the game’s shot attempts playing against him.
For further proof of the Panthers’ dominance, just look at the box score. They outshot the Islanders by 20, 46 to 26. They out-attempted the Islanders in shots by 31, 68 to 37. And these lopsided totals owe very little to the Islanders holding onto a lead at the end. The Panthers had a shot advantage in every period. Given these numbers, it’d be tempting to put this loss on goaltending, but Roberto Luongo was hung out to dry on several prime scoring chances against him.
Quick turnaround for both teams
Due to scheduling conflicts with both arenas, these teams meet on Friday at an earlier start time (7:30 p.m. ET) in the rare playoff back-to-back. The Panthers need to find away to replicate the energy they came out with in this game, lest they go down two games before the series moves to Brooklyn.
The quick turnaround also presents an interesting physical challenge for the two teams. Will the Panthers consider benching Luongo, given his age and performance in Game 1? Does Hamonic, coming back from a knee injury, get stronger in his second game out or show signs of rust? Both team’s top scorer also got banged up in this first match-up. Jagr went hard into the boards in the first period; Tavares took a stinger off his ankle. We’ll see if less recovery time affects them in a pivotal second game.