The Flyers upend the Islanders on Sunday, as New York rests most of its starters.
Bring on Jaromir Jagr and the Panthers for the Islanders, and Sidney Crosby and the rolling Penguins once again for the Rangers.
The first-round playoff opponents for both local teams finally were settled Sunday night in the skeleton-crew Isles’ 5-2 loss to Philadelphia in their regular-season finale at Barclays Center, the makeup of a snowed-out game originally scheduled for Jan. 23.
Of course, Rangers fans beforehand furiously accused their Brooklyn-based rivals – who did happen to win, 4-1, at MSG on Thursday, it should be noted – of tanking to play Florida after Jack Capuano announced that first-line forwards John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen and top defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy would be among those held out against the Flyers to rest up for the postseason.
“We can’t as an organization and a coaching staff, worry. We have to worry about what we do and how we go about our business,” Capuano said before the game. “We have to do what’s best for the New York Islanders and what’s best for our players. That’s the bottom line.”
The Isles, who reached 100 points for a second consecutive season with Saturday’s overtime loss to Buffalo, would have jumped into third place ahead of the Rangers in the Metropolitan Division with a victory – earning a date with second-place Pittsburgh, winners of 14 of 16 to finish the season. The Rangers (46-27-9, 101 points) instead will draw Sidney Crosby and the Penguins for the third straight postseason, after eliminating them in the second round in 2014 and in the first round (five games) last spring. That series starts Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Facing the Atlantic Division champion Panthers beginning Thursday in Sunrise also means the Isles (45-27-10) will avoid a potential pairing with NHL-leading Washington in the second round should they advance for the first time since 1993.
“I think it’s a slippery slope when you go and try to choose opponents and routes and stuff like that, and start looking ahead,” Cal Clutterbuck said. “I think the decision was made that this was what’s best for us today.
Islanders’ goalie Christopher Gibson stops a shot from Flyers’ Jordan Weal.
“But this was a weird game, definitely.”
The Isles and Panthers (103 points) never have met in the playoffs, but there are plenty of significant links between the two franchises.
The ageless Jagr — the NHL’s third all-time leading scorer who paces Florida in points (27-29-66) – was on the Penguins’ squad the Isles eliminated back in 1993 for their most recent playoff-series victory.
The Panthers, meanwhile, also boast a drought of 20 years without a series victory since they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.
Additionally, veteran goalie Roberto Luongo has posted 429 of his 436 career wins since the Isles’ 1997 first-round pick (fourth overall) was traded away by then-GM Mike Milbury in 2000 in one of Mad Mike’s slew of ill-fated deals. And Isles’ 80s dynasty captain Denis Potvin also is a longtime TV announcer with the Panthers.
Florida co-owner Doug Cifu, of course, also said in a radio interview last week that he would prefer to face the Islanders instead of “world-class goalie” Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in the opening round.
Flyers celebrate a goal from Evgeny Medvedev en route to a 5-2 victory.
“Yeah, we saw it,” Tavares told the Daily News when asked earlier this week about Cifu’s words. “I don’t think we really put a whole lot into it and I think we’ll be confident against whoever we play.… But maybe if we played them, we might talk about it (before the series).”
The eighth-seeded Flyers also rested several regulars ahead of their opening series against the Caps, most notably Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and former Isles captain Mark Streit.
“There was no discussion at all (about opponents),” Martin said. “We’re playoff bound and we have some guys that are banged-up and some important pieces that you don’t want to risk getting injured in a game like this. I think every team in the league does it. They rested guys tonight also.”
Dressing several emergency call-ups from AHL Bridgeport, the Isles actually grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first 9:19 of the game on goals by Nikolay
Kulemin and Matt Martin. But the Flyers tied it before the session was over as part of five unanswered goals against goalies Thomas Greiss (20 minutes) and Christopher Gibson to confirm the Isles’ trip to south Florida later this week.
“It’s a tough game to coach because it’s almost like a preseason game,” Capuano said. “Granted, I’m a little gun shy because of all the injuries we have…But we always have to do what’s best for our hockey club, and nothing would have changed that.”