Panthers, Isles out to end long postseason droughts
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) The days of the Florida Panthers playing before a largely empty arena are not exactly long gone. It was just last season when the franchise was setting attendance futility records, getting attention for plenty of wrong reasons.
The narrative has changed completely since.
No longer hockey's official doormat, the Panthers won the Atlantic Division title, set records for wins and points in a season and now can set their sights on ending the league's second-longest current drought between playoff series wins. They open the Eastern Conference playoffs Thursday at home against the New York Islanders, the team that just happens to have the longest such drought.
Florida hasn't won a series in 20 years. The Islanders haven't won one in 23 years. But both were 100-point clubs this year, and it's not farfetched for either to be thinking that they can win it all.
''If you're going into the playoffs thinking you can't do it, you might as well kick yourself right out of the playoffs,'' Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson said.
The Panthers are in the playoffs for just the second time since 2000, falling in seven games to eventual finalist New Jersey in 2012. The Islanders have lost their last eight playoff series going back to 1993, and lost to Washington in seven games in last year's opening round.
''It takes a lot of luck, a lot of health, a lot of special teams and great goaltending to get by a round,'' Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. ''If we do those things we have a chance to get by Round 1. I got a lot of confidence in these guys that they're going to compete at a high level. You have to have a short memory. If you have a bad shift, if you lose a hockey game, you better bounce back. Those are the things we're going to concentrate on.''
Here's some of what to watch going into the series:
BACK TO BACK: The series starts with a rare playoff back-to-back on Thursday and Friday, with the NHL saying it was necessary because of a ''combination of factors'' with other events scheduled at both arenas. The Panthers' BB&T Center couldn't host a potential Game 1 on Wednesday because of a concert; the Islanders' Barclays Center has conflicts on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday. According to STATS, the Islanders were 9-3-3 on the second night of back-to-backs this season, the Panthers were 8-4-2.
GOALIE ISSUES: Florida would seem like it rates a serious edge here, at least from an experience factor. The Panthers' Roberto Luongo will be playing in his 65th playoff game Thursday night, his 63rd as a starter. New York - with Jaroslav Halak still injured - will go with Thomas Greiss, whose only Stanley Cup playoff game action was a 40-minute relief stint in 2010.
JAGR FACTOR: No one in NHL history has more goals against the Islanders than Florida's Jaromir Jagr, who has lit the lamp 64 times at their expense (three of those coming in postseason play). Jagr was born before the Islanders' franchise started play, was a two-time Stanley Cup winner before the Florida franchise played its initial game, yet even at 44 has proven that he remains an elite talent.
TIES THAT BIND: The Islanders' last series win came against Jagr and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and if that wasn't enough the architect of that New York team was Bill Torrey - who would soon become the first president of the Panthers. Torrey, one of the most respected executives in NHL history, has a banner retired in his honor by both the Islanders and the Panthers, and still has family living in New York. Torrey is an assistant to Panthers GM Dale Tallon.
SEASON SERIES SUCCESS: Florida's Aleksander Barkov had five points (2-3-5) in the three games against the Islanders this season, while Luongo stopped 81 of 87 shots. For the Islanders against Florida, defenseman Marek Zidlicky (0-3-3) was the leading scorer in the season series. Greiss beat the Panthers in his only appearance against them, stopping 23 of 25 shots.