It took all 82 games of the season, but the Florida Panthers now know who they will face in the first round of the playoffs. The Philadelphia Flyers finished the season with a 6-3-1 record to face the unenviable prospect of facing the Washington Capitals in the first round, leaving the New York Islanders in the first wild-card spot and a date with the Panthers in Sunrise.
Panthers’ Record Setting Season
On the way to clinching first place in the Atlantic Division, the Panthers set records for wins (47) and points (103) earned in any season and several players set personal bests on their way to the top.
Jaromir Jagr, while far from reaching the dizzying heights reached early in his career, led the team with 27 goals and 66 points and some are whispering about him as NHL MVP, but some of the emerging young stars also recorded career bests.
Chief among those was Aleksander Barkov, who set career highs with 29 goals and 59 points despite missing 16 games due to injury and first-line center Jonathan Huberdeau hit 20 goals for the first time in his career.
Aaron Ekblad continued to show why he was a first overall draft pick with a stellar sophomore season and Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith were a couple of others who surprised with their productivity.
Islanders Up Next
Team records and personal achievements are great but the playoffs pose a whole new challenge for the Cats. While wrapping up the regular season with a superb 7-3-1 record in their last 10 games played, head coach Gerard Gallant told NHL.com that he doesn’t think momentum counts for very much right now.
“Truthful? No, I don’t,” Gallant said with a grin. “I’d like to say yes, but no. We’ve got four days before we play our first game and we’ve got to have some good practices, get ready and make sure we’re healthy… You’ve got to win four of every seven games now. It’s going to be a battle every game.”
If momentum doesn’t mean much, perhaps we should take a close look at how the Islanders and Panthers match up in some keys areas.
Keeping the puck out of the net is always a huge part of the game but, in the playoffs, that need is magnified.
Roberto Luongo had a tremendous season between the pipes for the Panthers, recording 35 wins and a .922 save percentage while backup Al Montoya added 12 wins in 22 starts with a decent .919 save percentage.
For the Islanders, backup Thomas Griess had 23 wins in 40 starts and a .926 save percentage and actually outplayed apparent-starter Jaroslav Halak.
Worth noting that the Panthers allowed 203 goals against in the regular season, while the Islanders gave up 216.
There is no clear difference between the teams’ puck stoppers here, but it’s likely the Panthers have an edge due to Luongo’s significant playoff experience.
Both teams have a blend of grizzled veterans and young studs but the key difference here might be injuries. Both Travis Harmonic and Calvin de Haan suffered late-season injuries and may not be 100 percent heading into the playoffs. de Haan did play in the Islanders’ season-ending 5-2 loss to the Flyers but, without top-pairing defenseman Hamonic, the Islanders could be in trouble if he isn’t at the top of his game when, or if, he returns.
The Panthers have been without Erik Gudbranson as the season wound down but he’s expected to be back for the first game of the playoffs and, if he’s 100 percent, the Panthers should have an advantage in both skill and depth.
You could certainly make the argument that the Islanders have the best forward of these two teams because John Tavares outscored every Panther with 33 goals and 70 points. He was one of four Islanders to score more than 20 goals but the Panthers had five and, in the playoffs, depth is critical.
That depth allowed the Panthers to total 239 goals this season while the Islanders countered with 232.
Both teams can run out very strong top three lines and have balance in their attacks, so it’s likely that potential injury and good old puck luck might decide this series.
Again, we see two teams that are very closely matched.
- Florida Home Record: 25-11-5
- New York Home Record: 25-11-5
- Florida Away Record: 22-15-4
- New York Away Record: 20-16-5
The Panthers have a very small advantage here, which likely won’t have much bearing on this series.
I’ve surveyed a few betting sites and they favour the Panthers in this matchup which, under the circumstances, is likely wise. The keys for the Panthers are to pay special attention to Tavares and prey upon the Islanders defensemen, who may not be 100 percent healthy. If Luongo can deliver quality starts between the pipes, the Panthers should win.
Fearless prediction: Panthers in six.