Playing their first game that counted in nearly five months, the Florida Panthers did not begin their best-of-five Eastern Conference Qualifying Round series with the New York Islanders the way they wanted. They fell behind in the first period and were never able to recover and break through the stingy Islanders in losing 2-1.
Continuing their trend that began in their 5-0 exhibition loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Panthers failed to create many scoring chances and now face a tall task of trying to win three of the next four games to stick around in Toronto for another couple of weeks. Here are three takeaways from Florida’s Game 1 loss.
1. Chasing Goals Too Early
This won’t be a long series for the Panthers if they continue to fall behind, especially early in the game. The Islanders were tied for fifth best in the league with the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues with 190 goals allowed in the regular season.
The Islanders got a first-period goal from trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and a second-period power play goal from Anthony Beauvillier for a 2-0 lead. Despite a third period goal from Jonathan Huberdeau 23 seconds into the period, the Panthers were never able to beat first-year Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov again.
New York has one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL and that depth was tested early in the second period when Johnny Boychuk left the game after taking a hit from Florida’s Mike Matheson and did not return. The Islanders’ defensive unit of Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews, Scott Mayfield and Nick Leddy didn’t give the Panthers many good scoring chances in front of Varlamov.
2. Bobrovsky Was Excellent in Net
General manager Dale Tallon’s big free-agent splash last summer was giving goalie Sergei Bobrovsky a seven-year, $70 million contract, but the former Columbus Blue Jackets netminder did not live up to his billing prior to the league pause. He had a career-high 3.23 goals-against average and career-low .899 save percentage. Saturday, Bobrovsky played very well, keeping his team in the game and giving them a chance to rally.
Bobrovsky made several big saves late in the second period and in the third. He robbed Brock Nelson in the final minute of the second with a glove save on a shot from the slot. After Huberdeau’s goal in the opening minute of the third period, he stopped Pageau with a shoulder save, and then flashing out his pad to stop the rebound. With just under five minutes left in the game, he robbed Nelson again, this time sliding to his right to make a save.
After giving up five goals in Wednesday’s exhibition loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Bobrovsky bounced back with 26 saves against the Islanders. He did a nice job of not leaving many rebounds and was active in his crease. As the series goes along, he has the capability to steal a game, but he will need help to do that from his teammates by finding a way to beat Varlamov.
3. Need to Find Scoring Fast
For the first time since 1986, the NHL is playing a best-of-five playoff series, which means there is more added pressure on the team that loses Game 1. To add insult to injury, playing the Islanders can be frustrating and leaves little room for error going forward.
First-year Panthers coach Joel Quenneville will have to find a way to get more offense. Finishing with 28 shots on net in Game 1, the Panthers only managed five shots in the third period after 14 in the second. Aleksander Barkov led Florida with three shots on net, but Huberdeau only had two, while Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov each had one. That’s not going to cut it against the Islanders if the Panthers hope to get back in the series.
Prior to the game, Quenneville moved Huberdeau to the Panthers’ first line with Barkov and Dadonov. The trio accounted for the only Florida goal in the game — but aside from Huberdeau’s goal, the line did not generate any other prime scoring chances. Florida had only one power play which generated three shots. A top 10 power play during the season, the Panthers will need to take advantage of the-man-advantage the rest of the series, especially if they continue to struggle 5-on-5.
Panthers Must Find Answers Quickly
Both teams get two days off before Games 2 and 3 are on back-to-back days beginning Tuesday. If the Panthers are going to extend the series beyond Game 3, they will need to find some offensive rhythm earlier in Game 2, and find it quickly against one of the leagues stingiest defenses that don’t give up many opportunities.
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The Islanders played Game 1 the way they wanted. They took advantage of a sluggish Florida start, got a two-goal lead, used a suffocating forecheck that produced turnovers and did not allow the Panthers to get any flow going. Now it’s time for the Panthers to respond Tuesday.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.