John Tavares leads a strong attack from the Islanders.
The co-owner of the Panthers flat-out stated that he preferred to face the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. And many accused the Isles of tanking to arrange the same matchup.
Either way, the wild-card Islanders and Atlantic Division champion Florida will square off in the postseason for the first time beginning Thursday in Sunrise.
The Isles have not won a playoff series since 1993, with this the 10th year of Garth Snow’s reign as GM. The Panthers also are attempting to halt a similar drought since 1996, making this the first series in NHL history in which neither team has advanced in at least 20 years.
Here’s the breakdown:
Hey, remember Roberto Luongo, Isles fans? We kid, because of course you do. In one of far too many ill-fated trades of the Mike Milbury era, the Isles’ 1997 first-round pick (fourth overall) was dealt to Florida in 2000 with Olli Jokinen for forwards Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish. Luongo has since been traded to Vancouver and back to Florida, totaling 436 career wins (seven with the Isles) and leading the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. At 37, he still was one of the game’s better goalies this year − 35 wins, a .922 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average.
Isles starter Jaroslav Halak hasn’t played since March 8 with a bum groin, and while he’s resumed skating, Jack Capuano essentially has ruled him out for this round. Unproven backup Thomas Greiss will carry the load in Halak’s absence. The free-agent signing has 40 minutes of NHL playoff experience (2010 with San Jose), but the Isles have confidence in Greiss after he went 23-11-4 with a franchise record .925 save percentage.
Former Islanders first round pick Roberto Luongo gives the Panthers an edge in net.
Florida’s Aaron Ekblad, the No.1 pick in the 2014 draft, is an emerging star at 20 years old, with 15 goals and a plus-18 rating in his second NHL campaign. Veteran puck-mover Brian Campbell knows how to run a power play. Dimitri Kulikov and Alex Petrovic are solid stay-at-home types.
The likely return and effectiveness of minutes-muncher Travis Hamonic from a March 31 knee injury, particularly paired against Jagr, is the key to the series. Johnny Boychuk hasn’t been as impactful as he was upon arrival last season, but Nick Leddy posted a career-high 40 points, including 19 on the power play. Calvin de Haan mostly stayed healthy and finally showed glimpses of first-rounder promise. Underrated Thomas Hickey will man the third pair with veteran Marek Zidlicky or one of multiple rookies.
What more can be said about indefatigable 44-year-old marvel/superhero Jaromir Jagr, who led the Panthers in scoring (29-37-66)? The NHL’s third all-time leading scorer incredibly also happened to be on the last team the Isles defeated in the postseason, the 1993 Penguins. Florida also boasts a slew of up-and-comers up front, with five other forwards north of 50 points, including Aleksander Barkov (28 goals), veteran Jussi Jokinen, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck, although the latter has been sidelined with a foot injury.
The Islanders’ attack once again revolves around All-Star captain John Tavares, who finished with a flourish (eight points last three games) after finally being aligned late with Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen to finish with 33 goals and 70 points. Capuano finally calling out unproductive forwards Josh Bailey, Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson last week to “pick their s-t up” was the right call. Anders Lee’s loss (broken leg) in front could prove costly. The misnamed fourth line (Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck) needs to be menacing and perhaps productive.
Both teams sported middling power-play production − the Islanders ranked 17th (18.3 %), Florida 23rd (16.9). The Islanders fourth-ranked PK unit finished 20 spots higher than Florida, and they must take advantage here.
Missing out on home-ice cost the Isles in a no-show performance in a Game 7 loss last spring in Washington. The first year of Barclays Center wasn’t all roses, but the Isles posted a better home record than in the final season of beloved Nassau Coliseum. Winnable series, yes, and please, no more excuses. But the drought continues, if barely.
PANTHERS in 7