After a surprising regular season in which they took the Atlantic division title, the Florida Panthers are opening the playoffs with a cross-division series against the first wild card team from the East in the New York Islanders. Both of these teams have rebounded in the last few years from hard times in the 2000's by drafting great young players and bringing in experienced veterans to complement the young talent.
Regular Season Results
The Panthers took two of three meetings in the regular season. The first was a 3-2 Panthers win in a shootout at home, followed by a 5-1 win on Long Island. The Islanders took the last meeting 3-2 on their home ice.
The Panthers have not won a playoff series since they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals in the 1996 playoffs. They fell to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals that season. Since then, they have made the playoffs just three times—1997, 2000 and 2012, and they have never played against the Islanders in a postseason series. The Islanders are the only team with a longer playoff series win drought than the Panthers—not having tasted a playoff series victory since the 1993 playoffs, defeating the Penguins 4-3 in the Wales Division Finals. They’ve made the playoffs eight times since then, including this season.
Crucial Individual Matchup
The most crucial individual matchup in this series will be John Tavares vs. Aaron Ekbald. The Panthers limited Tavares to just three shots on goal in three games in the regular season and he managed just one point, an assist in the third meeting. Tavares is one of the top five centers in the league, but Ekblad was picked number one overall, as was Tavares, and has been excellent in his young career. He is just 20 years old and is going to get better and better with time. I see him winning multiple Norris Trophies down the road.
Important Line Matchups
The second line of the Islanders is going to be the most important line for them in this series. Guys like Frans Nielsen, Brock Nelson and Matt Martin are going to have to get on the board for them to win. They can’t all depend on the top line guys in Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Nikolay Kulemin to handle all the scoring. The Panthers have a good scoring second line as well with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith flanking Nick Bjugstad. They play well both ways, and need to help the first line of Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov with the scoring. Barkov led the team with 28 goals in 66 games, and would have reached the 30 goal plateau if he had stayed healthy all season. The ageless Jagr was second in goals with 27 and tied for second in assists with 39, giving him the most points on the team with 66.
But the Panthers third line of trade deadline adds Teddy Purcell and Jiri Hudler flanking the diminutive Rocco Grimaldi give the Panthers three capable scoring lines which will put consistent pressure on the Islanders and their stingy defense. The health situation is looking up for the Panthers as they should get forward Vincent Trocheck and defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Steve Kampfer back for the start of the series.
Roberto Luongo will be guarding the pipes for the Panthers, looking to follow up an excellent regular season with a playoff run. He tied for fourth in the league with 35 wins in 62 games. He had a 2.35 goals against average and .922 save percentage, which was tied for seventh in the league. Thomas Greiss will be forced into action again as Jaroslav Halak will likely not be available for this series. Should the Isles advance, Halak might be able to come back. That said, Greiss has performed well this season with a .925 save percentage, third best in the league. He won 23 games, appearing in 41 overall. This is the most work he has gotten in a season in his NHL career, his previous high in games started was 20 with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2013-14. His lone playoff appearance was with the San Jose Sharks in 2009-10, in which he conceded two goals in a 7-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
The Panthers will win this series in six games.