The New York Islanders punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season with an improbable 4-3 win in overtime against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals. Now that the first step is complete, the question is raised, who do the Islanders want to face in the first round?
The Islanders and New York Rangers were on a collision course to meet in the first round for the first time since 1994. That potential meeting will have to wait for a future date thanks to the Penguins, who leapfrogged both teams. Despite the loss of both Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens are 9-1-0 in their last ten games. They will hold Fleury out for the remainder of the regular season. Rookie Matt Murray has been strong as Fleury’s replacement. The 21-year-old is 8-2-1 with 1.98 GAA and .930 save percentage. If Murray faces the Islanders in the first round, Thomas Greiss holds the edge in playoff experience by 40 minutes. The Penguins destroyed the Isles 5-0 on April 2nd and won the season-series 1-2-1. Sidney Crosby would love to face the Islanders. Sid has 94 career points against the Isles, the most against any team. Crosby would get a break if Travis Hamonic is still out. Hamonic injured his knee against Columbus on March 31st and his status for the playoffs is unknown. The teams certainly have playoff history. Ten Islanders were on the 2013 team that lost to Pittsburgh in six games. The last time the Islanders won a playoff round was against the Penguins in the 1993 Patrick Division Finals.
There is a slim chance that the Islanders can overtake the Penguins and finish second in the Metropolitan Division. If New York wins their final three games and Pittsburgh loses their final two games the Isles will open up the playoffs at home for the first time since the 1987-88 season.
The Islanders could avoid the Metropolitan Division in the first round if they clinch the first wild card spot. According to sportsclubstats.com, the Islanders have a 69% chance to meet the Panthers in the playoffs. The Isles need three points in their final three games to eliminate the Capitals as a first-round matchup. The Panthers clinched the Atlantic Division title Tuesday night and amassed 100 points for the first time in their history. This may be the most favorable matchup for the Islanders. It may also be the most favorable one for the Panthers, according to their co-owner Doug Cifu.
— Hank Winnicki (@HankWinnicki) April 6, 2016
Islanders head coach Jack Capuano and captain John Tavares will certainly hang this quote on the locker room bulletin board. Being a transplant New Yorker himself, Cifu knows how many New Yorkers live in South Florida. The Panthers do not possess a big home-ice advantage. There could be a big contingent of Isles fans among the rats.
The Panthers young core of players featuring Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau have zero playoff experience. The team, however, has a group of veterans who have raise the Cup (Jaromir Jagr, Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell). Who would have thought many years after the trade, 16 to be exact, that Roberto Luongo could still haunt the Islanders.
Since the last division realignment from a season ago, there is no reseeding in the playoffs. If the Islanders face the Panthers in the first round, their past to the Eastern Conference Finals would go through the Atlantic Division, staying away from the Penguins and Capitals.
The Islanders, despite their path, need to win a playoff round to save Capuano’s job.
Noel Fogelman is a 5-time Emmy Winner and started his career working on the Buffalo Sabres Pre and postgame shows for the Empire Sports Network. He then went to Bristol, CT to work at ESPN on NHL2Night and its coverage of the Stanley Cup. Follow me on Twiter @thefirstnoel19