The New York Islanders clinched a playoff spot in their final regular-season game with a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens. The win gave them the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, while the team that secured the final playoff spot was the Florida Panthers. The Islanders were eliminated in the first round in six games by the Carolina Hurricanes, but the Panthers look poised to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Related: Hurricanes & Panthers Highlight The Value of Defensive Forwards
The Panthers upset the Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round and then easily defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round in five games. Suddenly, they look like the team to beat, as they are only six wins away from a Cup title. The Panthers’ dominance, while impressive, also shows how close the Islanders are to winning the Stanley Cup. They share a lot of similarities and have the traits of a contending team, making it easy to think that if they can make the playoffs next season, they can also get hot and go on a run.
Islanders Have Elite Goaltending
Sergei Bobrovsky had a rough season and oftentimes was a liability in the net for the Panthers. He had a .901 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.07 goals-against average (GAA) on 1,466 shots with minus-4.6 goals saved above average (GSAA). However, in the playoffs, he’s not only played at a high level but outdueled some of the best goaltenders in the league. His .931 SV% and 2.32 GAA on 433 shots with 11.3 GSAA in the playoffs and multiple dominant starts have carried the Panthers and allowed them to win multiple low-scoring games.
Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final was a 2-1 game that was decided in overtime. The Panthers needed a lights-out performance from Bobrovsky, and he gave them just that. While he’s not one of the best goaltenders in the league and has struggled in recent years, he has shown that he can catch fire at any point and carry a team in a deep playoff run.
The Islanders have an elite goaltender, like Bobrovsky, who can get on a run and carry the team. Ilya Sorokin had a Vezina Trophy-caliber season with a .924 SV% and a 2.34 GAA on 1,838 shots with 36 GSAA, and his brilliant play propelled the team to the playoffs. He couldn’t help the Islanders advance to Round 2 despite multiple strong starts. However, throughout the season, he could string together a hot streak. With Sorokin playing at a high level, the Islanders rarely fell into a losing streak and would remain in the playoff race because of his performance in net.
Sorokin makes the Islanders a competitive team and gives them a chance to win on a nightly basis. More importantly, he’s proven he can play at a high level for enough games to carry them to a Cup. While elite goaltenders struggled in the playoffs this season, world-class goaltenders have given their teams an advantage in the playoffs throughout history and have often been the reason for a championship. If the Islanders can reach the playoffs, Sorokin is the type of goaltender who can lead them in a deep playoff run.
Both Teams Have Great Defensive Forwards
The Panthers struggled throughout the season defensively, allowing 3.32 goals per game. However, they had the players in place to not only improve their defense but eliminate potent offenses, especially at the forward position. Aleksander Barkov won the Selke Trophy in 2021, while Matthew Tkachuk is one of the best defensive forwards in the game, and both skaters have stepped up defensively in the playoffs.
In the playoff run, the Panthers have allowed only 2.85 goals per game, and in the last seven games, they have allowed only 13. Barkov and Tkachuk have carried the offense, but they are making their biggest impact defensively. Barkov controls the center of the ice and uses his speed and instincts to close in on the puck and force turnovers to start up the offense. Tkachuk, meanwhile, is a power forward on the wing who creates turnovers with hard hits on the boards and pressures opponents in the offensive zone with his strong forecheck. The Panthers’ top-six forwards have not only controlled games but have limited the opponent’s top-six forwards with their great play in all three zones.
Latest News & Highlights
The Islanders’ checking line is their fourth line, and it often helps the team control games defensively. However, they also have great defensive forwards in the top six. Bo Horvat was a disappointment offensively after he was acquired during the All-Star Break, but he stepped up defensively and created turnovers from the center position. Brock Nelson, who scored a team-high 36 goals, also led the forwards with 2.4 defensive point shares and used his skating to cut off angles and passing lanes for opponents. Hudson Fasching, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Kyle Palmieri all stepped up on the depth lines and helped block shots and limit opponents from finding scoring chances.
The Islanders struggled offensively this season and fell apart in the first round, scoring only 15 goals in six games. The offensive struggles will continue to set them back and keep them from contending for the Cup. However, with their forwards playing at a high level defensively, they can contend. They can also limit any offense in the league.
Horvat, Barzal & Nelson Can Carry the Offense
The frustrating part of the Panthers’ run is that the Islanders have the goalscorers and playmakers in their forward unit but haven’t seen the results. Nelson carried the offense this season, with 36 goals and 39 assists, while he was also one of the few bright spots in the first round, scoring two goals and three assists. Otherwise, the playoffs were a disappointment for the top six, with Horvat only scoring a goal and an assist, while Mathew Barzal only scored two goals. That said, the Islanders’ three best skaters can carry the offense to lead them deep into the playoffs.
Horvat has a great shot, something that made him a 37-goal scorer this season. Next season, he needs to not only find open ice in the offensive zone but start shooting the puck more to optimize his best skill. Barzal creates open shots for his linemates with his speed and passing ability. While he needs to shoot the puck more and be more aggressive in the offensive zone, he can also find chemistry with Horvat, creating plenty of scoring chances with his passing ability. Barzal also is only starting to enter his prime at 25 years old. Next season, he can emerge as the elite forward the Islanders hoped he’d become when he signed the eight-year extension in the 2022 offseason.
The Islanders’ offense has struggled in recent years, averaging under 3.00 goals per game for the past five seasons. However, the three best skaters can not only step up to carry the offense but help turn it into one of the better ones in the league. Nelson, Horvat, and Barzal are also the three skaters who can carry the team in a playoff series and, ultimately, through a playoff run. While they aren’t as great as Tkachuk, Barkov, or Carter Verhaeghe, they have the skillsets to elevate the offense and carry the team. The question is if they can do it against elite defenses. This season, they showed they couldn’t, as they were blanked by the Hurricanes. But, like the Panthers, who were swept in the second round a year ago, they can use the recent playoff exit as motivation to come back stronger in 2023-24.
Islanders Have the Right Coach in Place
The 2023 Playoffs have shown the importance of great coaching. Specifically, teams need the right coach for their roster. The Panthers hired Paul Maurice to bring a fire and energy behind the bench that could motivate the players on the ice. Similarly, the Dallas Stars have thrived under Pete DeBoer’s offensive influence, the Hurricanes are a disciplined team under Rod Brind’Amour, and the Vegas Golden Knights have great situational awareness under Bruce Cassidy.
The Islanders’ first-year head coach Lane Lambert had plenty of highs and lows behind the bench this season. He coached a more aggressive, offensive-minded system, but in the second half of the season, turned to a defense-first mentality to secure a playoff spot. The aggressive play resulted in more scoring chances but also more mistakes, allowing opponents to find scoring opportunities off turnovers.
That said, Lambert’s coaching temperament never wavered, and he acted the same regardless of how the team played, which eventually brought out the best in the roster. He was unfazed by the pressure and tension of the season, and his demeanor set the team up for success. This season wasn’t a great one for Lambert, but it showed that he is the right person for the Islanders and can lead them in the postseason.
Where the Islanders Need to Improve to Close That Gap
The Islanders need their defensemen to step up in the offensive zone, especially in a playoff series. The series against the Hurricanes showed the gap between a good and an elite defensive unit as the Islanders struggled to open up the offense from the point while their opposition did. Ultimately, it made the series one-sided and allowed the Hurricanes to advance in six games.
Another issue with the Islanders’ roster is that they lack elite forwards who can adapt like Tkachuk or Sebastian Aho of the Hurricanes. They have great skaters in the top six, but when they are forced to adjust, they struggle. Next season, Barzal must round out his game and prove he can beat opponents with his shot. Anders Lee must show that he is more than just a finisher near the crease. Palmieri has to be more than just a sharpshooter on the wing. The Islanders have too many skaters with specific skill sets, and it’s been their undoing in recent years. Along with adding versatility to the lineup, the players on the team need to adjust to become true contenders.
The Islanders have a lot of room for improvement. However, the Panthers are showing that they are close to contending. They need to stay on the course and make a few minor adjustments to put themselves over the top and make a run at the Cup in 2023-24.