After over fourth months without hockey due the pandemic resulting from COVID-19, the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers are set to resume play with their best-of-five play-in series. It will also be a rematch of the first round of the 2016 NHL playoffs, where the Islanders defeated the Panthers four games to two.
In the regular season, New York finished with 80 points after going 35-23-10 season to earn themselves the seventh seed. Florida played in one more game and went 35-26-8 for 78 points and earned the tenth seed. In the teams’ regular season matchups, the Islanders swept the Panthers winning all three games, but had one of the games end in a shootout.
New York struggled at the end of the season as they dropped their last seven games. However, the Panthers finished the season with points in three straight games and back-to-back wins, including one over the reigning Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues. Let’s take a look at predictions made from both the Islanders’ and Panthers’ writers.
Matt Rothman: Panthers in 5
While the Islanders looked sharp in their first exhibition game against the New York Rangers and the Panthers did not, it feels like it is time for Florida to make their run. They played an incredible series against the Islanders in 2016 and only came up short after incredible goaltending from Thomas Greiss and spectacular play from John Tavares. The Islanders also benefited from three overtime goals in games that could have gone either way. Look for the Panthers to perhaps return the favor a bit and pull out a couple of late wins.
While the Islanders have a terrific head coach in Barry Trotz, the Panthers have one as well in Joel Quenneville. Despite it seeming like a favorable matchup for New York coming in, this could be the year the Panthers break through and not only win a round but make a push deep into the playoffs.
Series MVP: Sergei Bobrovsky
The Panthers paid their goaltender $70 million over seven seasons and are going to get their money’s worth in the playoffs. He had a pedestrian season, but that may change. The Islanders continue to lack a consistent goal scorer and Bobrovsky will prove that with a strong series. It would not be surprising to see him struggle in one game, but his bounce-back effort will help the Panthers take their first series win since their Stanley Cup run in 1996.
James Nichols: Islanders in 5
Bobrovsky struggled in his first season with the Panthers, and those struggles continued in the exhibition matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was lit up by Brayden Point and the Lightning for five goals against on Wednesday afternoon.
The Panthers are well-coached by Quenneville, but they’re not quite ready yet to make a playoff push. The Islanders did a fantastic job handling the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2018-19 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the same defense they will ice on Saturday against the Panthers, and the addition of a healthy Adam Pelech is severely underrated. The Islanders will be able to shut down Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau just as well as they handled Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin a year ago.
Series MVP: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
The third line for most of the 2019-20 season was a black hole. Derick Brassard was supposed to fill that hole, but found more success on the wing, causing Trotz to shuffle that line quite often. It cannot be understated that the acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a perfect fit for that line, and gives the Islanders’ lineup stability and consistency.
Pageau is a Swiss Army knife with the ability to score, kill penalties, win faceoff draws at a high rate, and is defensively responsible in his own end. It appears as though the 25-plus goal scorer will be skating on the Islanders’ first power-play unit, where he has already scored in his short stint during the regular season. With Pageau in the mix this year, he can contribute in so many ways and will be the x-factor to the Islanders taking the series.
John Fiorino: Islanders in 4
The New York Islanders were on their way to missing the playoffs before the COVID-19 pause. With the return-to-play format, the Isles have a second chance to make a run. They match-up against the Florida Panthers, who have a tremendous top line and starting goaltender in Bobrovsky. While the defense is suspect, the Panthers were one of those teams that still had playoff hopes before the pause.
The thing that will give the Isles the edge in this series is their depth throughout the lineup. The team has a healthy lineup for the first time since the beginning of the season, when they went on a 17-game point streak from October to mid-November.
Series MVP: Adam Pelech
His impact may not always show on the scoresheet, but Pelech will be the Islanders’ MVP for this series. He matches up against the NHL’s best stars and consistently shuts them down on the top pairing with Ryan Pulock. In the exhibition game against the New York Rangers on July 29, Pelech went up against Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad for most of the night and held them to no points in the game. He and Pulock will go up against the lethal trio of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Evgenii Dadonov. The defense will be a difference-maker in this series with Pelech leading the way.
Jack Dawkins: Panthers in 5
The Panthers have a lot of players with a lot to play for. It’s a collection of individuals who all stand to benefit personally from a deep run. Mike Hoffman, Dadonov, Erik Haula, Mark Pysyk, and Brian Boyle are all pending unrestricted free agents. It’s hard to know how many cracks at this Boyle has remaining. Hoffman, Dadonov, and Haula certainly want nice-sized paychecks come free agency, whether they be from Florida or elsewhere.
Dominic Toninato, Aleksi Saarela, Dryden Hunt, Lucas Wallmark, MacKenzie Weegar, and Joshua Brown are all pending restricted free agentss. Each one is fighting to assert their place in the lineup and playing for their next contract. This is their last chance to make a positive impact on where their contract negotiations go. Aside from just playing for the team and playing to win, so many players have individual motivations to elevate their game.
Series MVP: Mike Hoffman
Three years ago, Hoffman was an overtime Game 7 away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final with the Ottawa Senators. Now he’s a pending 30-year-old unrestricted free agent, and has 65 goals and 129 points in 151 games for the Panthers. He has led the team in goals in each of the last two seasons. He’s also their top power-play performer. If the Panthers do indeed win the series, it’s going to be because Hoffman came through and scored big goals when called upon.
Scott Roche: Islanders in Five
It will be strength vs. strength with the Panthers owning the sixth-best goals per game in the league during the regular season at 3.30, while the Islanders are the ninth-best defensive team and have allowed just 2.97 goals a game.
Can the Panthers get enough offense to offset their struggling defense and, at times, struggling goalie Bobrovsky? That will be most likely what decides the series. I think the Islanders have enough offensive playmakers to advance.
Series MVP: Mat Barzal
I know that Barzal leads the Islanders in scoring, but he did have two goals and two assists against the Panthers this season. Look for the 23-year-old forward to have a breakout in his second trip to the postseason.
However the series ends up playing out, it will be a year that both teams never forget. They went months without hockey and were forced into a best-of-five series to keep their postseason alive inside the bubble in Toronto. Both sides showed growth throughout the season and it will make for an exciting series. The Islanders had some remarkable seasons from Barzal and Nelson. Simultaneously, Huberdeau and Barkov continue to be a big key to bringing the Panthers back to relevancy over the last few seasons.