NHL Qualifying Round Playoff Preview: Islanders vs. Panthers

The Isles hope for a fresh start after entering the break with seven straight losses. Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky aims to rebound after a rocky debut season tending the Panthers' net. Which team will prevail?
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NEW YORK ISLANDERS – By Ryan Kennedy

You know what style you’re getting with the Islanders, and it is not fun to play against. Under coach Barry Trotz, New York plays a structured, defensive game that is bolstered by solid goaltending – so offensive opportunities are limited. This was particularly evident in last year’s first-round sweep of the Penguins and will undoubtedly be the strategy again this time.

While the penalty kill was mid-table, the Islanders did add shorthanded ace Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline, and he can strike at any time. Pageau got off to a slow start offensively in New York, though a first-game fight against the hated New York Rangers endeared him to the Isles faithful immediately.

Defensively, the squad was in the top-10 in the NHL, but the offense was mired in the bottom 10. The Islanders don’t have any point-per-game players in their lineup, and Brock Nelson was the only player on a 30-goal pace.

Led by Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, New York still goes old-school with bangers and crashers in the bottom six, and that abrasive game comes back in style once the playoffs come around. One of the Islanders’ objectives is to wear down their opponents as the games go along, and that approach should be effective if a series goes deep.

Between the pipes, starter Semyon Varlamov and 1B option Thomas Greiss have both been assets, but not to the extent Greiss and Robin Lehner were last year, when the duo ranked among the NHL leaders in goals saved above average. Varlamov and Greiss are positives in that category but not by much. At the least the Islanders have two good netminders – something that has often been key in the playoffs in recent years.

Because of the way they play, the Islanders will be the worst possession team in the post-season (only Detroit and New Jersey were worse this year), but that was true last season and they still won a round.

X-factor: The Islanders’ offense runs through Mathew Barzal, but when it comes to big-game moments, keep an eye on veteran Jordan Eberle. Best known for his game-tying goal against Russia with 5.4 seconds left in the semifinal of the 2009 world juniors (when Canada went on to win gold), Eberle is still potent when the temperature rises in the rink. Last year, he led the Isles in post-season scoring with nine points in eight games and was instrumental in putting the Penguins on their heels in the first round. It would be a huge lift to the Islanders’ offense and take a lot of pressure off the entire team if he can be clutch once again.

FLORIDA PANTHERS – By Matt Larkin

This was supposed to be it. After years of failure despite consistently building talented-on-paper rosters, the Panthers really went for it last summer with coach Joel Quenneville and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky among their top additions. But the sum result was technically more of the same. The Panthers sat outside the playoff mix when the season paused, but the 24-team play-in format gives them life. If they get hot at the right time, anything can happen. They have game-breakers at every position.

The Panthers are a deep team on offense. They have the big, silky-handed, two-way center every team covets in Aleksander Barkov, one of the NHL’s most underrated playmaking left wingers in Jonathan Huberdeau and a strong supporting cast of finishers including Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov. The Panthers have five 20-goal scorers and would’ve had six or seven in a full season. They iced the league’s sixth-best offense, though the goals dried up a bit after the all-star break.

The defense corps hasn’t worked out as hoped. There’s a reason why GM Dale Tallon expressed a desire to get more help for workhorse Aaron Ekblad at the trade deadline – which didn’t happen. Mike Matheson has struggled to earn Quenneville’s trust to the point of being a healthy scratch and getting a look as a hybrid defenseman/forward along with Mark Pysyk. The Panthers’ main issue hasn’t been overall defensive play, which has been middle-of-the-pack, but rather the propensity to allow high-danger chances. Exacerbating the problem was the fact two-time Vezina Trophy winner Bobrovsky flopped miserably, grading out as the seventh-worst goalie in the NHL in goals saved above average per 60 among those with 1,000-plus minutes played at 5-on-5.

Florida is a lot like division rival Toronto: great offense, mediocre defense, hurt by unexpectedly bad goaltending.

X-Factor: Bobrovsky is the definition of a playoff X-factor. He has the potential to erase all the disappointment of the regular season by catching fire in the post-season. He entered last spring known as a playoff choke artist but redeemed himself with a .925 save percentage across 10 games. Florida draws an Islanders team that had lost seven consecutive games heading into the March-12 shutdown. Bobrovsky can still steal a series if he’s healthy and focused at the right time. He hasn’t played since Feb. 29. In his case, a five-month layoff might be a blessing, as it can act as a mental reset for him.

Season series

Oct. 12, 2019: Islanders 3, Panthers 2 (SO)
Nov. 9, 2019: Islanders 2, Panthers 1
Dec. 12, 2019: Islanders 3, Panthers 1

Schedule

Saturday, Aug. 1, 4:00 p.m.: Panthers at Islanders
Tuesday, Aug. 4, 12:00 p.m.: Panthers at Islanders
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 12:00 p.m: Islanders at Panthers
Friday, Aug. 7, TBD: Islanders at Panthers *
Sunday, Aug. 9, TBD: Panthers at Islanders *

(All games listed in eastern time)

THE HOCKEY NEWS’ SERIES PICK: Islanders in five games

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