The Panthers were the surprise winners of the Atlantic Division, are they for real or will the Islanders finally get over the hump and win a playoff series?
SERIES STARTS: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, in Florida.
HOW THEY WIN:
PANTHERS: From the time coach Gerard Gallant’s team stepped on the ice for the first game of the season and scored four goals in the first seven minutes, the Panthers forged their identity. This is an exciting, quick-strike bunch that dines out on opportunities and makes opponents pay for mistakes.
Much was made of the Panthers’ 12-game winning streak this season, as it should have been, but a five-game stretch in which they defeated Chicago, Tampa Bay, Washington and Detroit provided a true glimpse of what they can do. The Panthers scored 25 goals during that run and had three leads of 4-0 and one of 3-0, burying their opponents. And with goalie Roberto Luongo returning to elite form, the Panthers know they can play a riskier game.
ISLANDERS: The workmanlike Islanders get contributions throughout the lineup. Teams don’t find many easy shifts against them. New York is one of the NHL’s most physical squads, with only Los Angeles throwing more hits. The brutalizing fourth line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin plays a big role, and that’s not a fun style to face come playoff time. Despite the nastiness, the Isles are one of the least-penalized teams in the league and dynamite on the penalty kill. They also have nice balance on the back end, headlined by Travis Hamonic, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, but even the third pairing features an experienced veteran in Marek Zidlicky.
HOW THEY LOSE:
PANTHERS: A lot of people are saying that what the Panthers are doing this season is “unsustainable.” That’s a scary word in today’s game. It’s what people said about the Calgary Flames last season, and look what happened to them. The Panthers score with some of the best teams in the league – they were ninth overall at 2.75 goals per game – but they’re well down the list in shots. So either Panthers have extremely accurate shooters or there has been an element of luck in their game, which tends to even out eventually. Florida had better hope it’s not in the playoffs.
The Panthers start games great but don’t always sustain that effort. As of late March, they were one of only two playoff contenders with a negative scoring differential in the third period and were just 1-6 in overtime games.
ISLANDERS: New York is about as middle-of-the-road as you can get in a playoff team, right down to its 50 percent possession mark. Captain John Tavares is struggling through his worst offensive season since his initial years as a pro.
To make matters worse, starting netminder Jaroslav Halak is sidelined by a lower-body injury. Even if Halak were to return, he’d have to be even better than he was before the injury. His numbers this season are good, not great. The Halak who became a quick folk hero in Montreal thanks to his 2010 run hasn’t won a playoff series since. It will be a tall task for backup Thomas Greiss to carry the weight. Playing more games down the stretch might hurt a goaltender who had never made more than 25 appearances in an NHL season until this one.
PANTHERS: Nothing would kill the stench of losing that has permeated this franchise like a series win. The Panthers have zero since, wait for it, 20 years ago when they made their unlikely run to the Cup final. Key players, youngsters like AARON EKBLAD, have no playoff experience. How the kids respond could go a long way toward deciding how far the Panthers go in the post-season. Florida is playing with house money here, as well. Nobody expected this team to be this good this fast. Will that engender a “just-happy-to-be-here’” approach?
ISLANDERS: Last year a promising New York squad succumbed in the first round to Washington, but there was a caveat: TRAVIS HAMONIC missed the series due to injury. He’s the team’s best defenseman and will undoubtedly provide a boost this time around — if he’s healthy. He is banged up and could miss Game 1. The fact he has asked for a trade due to a personal matter ups the stakes even more, since this will likely be his final year in an Islanders uniform, and there are no hard feelings between him and the franchise. Will this be a “do it for Travis” scenario, or will the storyline simply die in the first round against a stronger team?
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
The upstart Panthers are in the playoffs and it’s because their young core took a huge step this season. None bigger than Aleksander Barkov. The 20-year-old Finn has broken out into a legit No. 1 center this season and his first taste of playoff action could be a decent measuring stick of where his game’s at. Across the dot from him will be proven elite center John Tavares. In the brief time they’ve faced each other, Tavares took Barkov to school, out-attempting his Panthers 50-22. That’s an indictment of Barkov’s possession play which hasn’t been as sterling as his production rates this season, especially in the defensive zone. His scoring was a little better than Tavares, but he doesn’t generate as many chances and gives up more too. Working on that is the next step for Barkov to becoming an elite center. He’s only getting better and this matchup against Tavares will show just how far he has to go.
THN’s pick: PANTHERS.