If you can believe it, we’re less than two weeks away from watching meaningful hockey. Islanders fans have been getting by on Belmont arena updates and continuing to follow Ilya Sorokin’s journey to the NHL, which finally happened last week when he signed an entry-level contract followed by a one-year extension for 2020-21.
But finally, there is a series to look forward to with the Florida Panthers beginning on Aug. 1. The two teams went head-to-head during the 2016 playoffs, but a lot has changed for both teams in that time. Here are three keys to the series and what to look for in this season’s qualifier matchup.
Despite the Islanders’ skid heading into the pause in mid-March, they might be feeling good as they prepare for this series with the Panthers, physically and mentally. A healthy lineup — including defenseman Adam Pelech who is coming off an Achilles injury, forward Casey Cizikas who has recovered from a skate laceration, along with rested veteran players like Cal Clutterbuck and Johnny Boychuk — will make an enormous impact on the team. Jean-Gabriel Pageau has also had some time to adapt to his new team after playing just seven games with the Islanders before the stoppage. A full, healthy lineup and a solidified third line will be huge for this team.
While the regular season feels like ages ago, and may not play too much of a role in these playoffs, the fact that the Islanders swept the season series with the Panthers shouldn’t be overlooked. Confidence is a big factor in hockey, and the Islanders might have an extra spring in their step knowing they held the Panthers to just four goals in their three-game, regular-season series.
For the Islanders, Thomas Greiss, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee led the way in the low-scoring series, but it’ll take a lot to contain the Panthers’ offense, which scored 3.30 goals per game this season. Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Noel Acciari all had 20 goals or more. The Panthers’ offense also has a knack for scoring goals in bunches — four players scored hat tricks this season — which could hurt the offensively stunted Islanders in a short series. If the Panthers strike early and often, the Islanders may be in trouble.
The (literal) saving grace? Greiss stood on his head in the season series. While he may not get the nod over Semyon Varlamov — more on that later — his 1.00 goals-against average (GAA) and .972 save percentage (SV%) in two games stopping 69 of 71 shots could be a difference-maker if he’s chosen to start the series.
Both Barry Trotz and Joel Quenneville have a ton of experience and are in the top-four in wins all-time — 845 and 925 respectively — but “Coach Q” has two more Stanley Cups to his name. This doesn’t take away from his accomplishments, but Quenneville had a star-studded roster to work with in Chicago. And while there’s a lot of talent on his current team, he has a very different roster in Florida that had a mixed bag of results this season. On the other bench, Trotz’s command of his team so far in his tenure on Long Island and the commitment to a defense-first, we-over-me mentality has, by-and-large, been a success.
One of the more cliche lines in hockey does hold a certain amount of weight — playoff experience matters. On the ice, the Islanders have a slight advantage here given their run last year with a largely unchanged roster, but behind the benches, both coaches know what it takes to win. It will be a chess match between Trotz and Quenneville, but given that the Islanders’ style of play more closely resembles “playoff hockey,” overall, the advantage may be in the Islanders’ favor here.
One of the most important things for the Islanders, and frankly every team in these playoffs, is to get momentum on your side early. Building your team’s confidence right off the hop will help everyone relax and not grip their sticks too tightly after not playing a game in over three months. An obvious way to build momentum is to make sure you score the game’s first goal.
During the regular season, both teams scored first about half the time. In 69 games, the Panthers scored first 35 times and the Islanders scored first 36 times in 68 games. However, when you dig a little deeper into those numbers, you find that the Panthers won 26 games when scoring first and the Islanders won just 23.
If the Islanders do score first, they’ll need to make sure to keep their foot on the gas and make sure momentum doesn’t swing back in the Panthers’ favor. The good news is, the Islanders showed they can win when allowing the first goal. They won 12 of 32 when trailing first, versus just 9 of 24 for the Panthers.
As always, this will be the most important part of this series. The Islanders’ team-defense approach has proven to be a success over the last two seasons. Add that to Mitch Korn’s and Piero Greco’s magic with the Islanders’ goaltenders, and the team became one of the stingiest in the NHL.
During the 2019-20 regular season, Varlamov and Greiss helped to keep the Islanders in the top-five for total goals against (190) and sported a combined .923 SV% at 5-on-5, good for 10th overall. While there hasn’t been anything official in regard to who will start for the Islanders, given that Varlamov played 14 more games than Greiss during the regular season, it may be a good bet that he’ll get the nod against Florida barring issues over the next couple of weeks.
The caveat here, as mentioned earlier, is that Greiss played very well against the Panthers during the season series. It would be surprising if Trotz switched goalies for the second series, so it’s likely whoever starts the playoffs will be the presumed starter for its entirety, considering no problems arise. However, given the unique circumstances of this season’s playoffs and the need for any advantage, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to use Greiss in the qualifier series and Varlamov the rest of the way.
For the Panthers, Sergei Bobrovsky, who is in his first year of a seven-year, $70 million deal, will be the man between the pipes. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner (2012-13 and 2016-17) had an off-year with numbers well below league average, but especially low when you look back to his numbers the last three seasons.
What’s different heading into this season’s playoffs? Everyone is getting a fresh start, including Bobrovsky. If he can shake off his regular-season performance and tap into how he played last season, his miraculous four-game sweep of the league-leading the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Islanders are in serious trouble. Goalies can steal a series and Bobrovsky can certainly make life miserable for the likes of Barzal and company, who struggle to score to begin with.
The good news for the Islanders? Bobrovsky hasn’t had a lot of success in the playoffs outside of last season. He’s “11-18 with a 3.14 GAA and a .902 SV% in 34 playoff games (30 starts) for Columbus and the Philadelphia Flyers,” according to NHL.com. Varlamov, on the other hand, is “13-13 with a 2.57 GAA and a .915 SV% in 26 playoff games (25 starts) with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche,” according to the same article.
There isn’t a clear advantage for either of these teams, especially when you consider the circumstances. However, this series will boil down to only a few details that neither team can afford to glaze over. Can the Islanders offense get Bobrovsky off his game? Will the Panthers be able to penetrate a tough Islander defense? We’ll find out soon enough.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.