Stanley Cup Playoffs Qualifying Round Preview: Islanders vs. Panthers

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Unless you’re talking to a player or someone in management on either of these teams, or someone related to one of them, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s picking the Islanders or Panthers to advance very far in these unique Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But they each have something interesting about them that, if the chips fell just right, could lead to a Cinderella run.

The Islanders are a year removed from being a pesky team that swept aside the Pittsburgh Penguins, before being swept themselves. It’s about structure and re-establishing their defence from a year ago for this team — finding success in either regard is key to unlocking a surprise streak.

The Panthers have the ultimate wild card here in Sergei Bobrovsky. Fully capable of stealing a series, and one year removed from upsetting Tampa Bay and giving Boston a run for their money while in Columbus’ crease, Bobrovsky struggled through a nightmare season after signing on with the Panthers. But you can’t assume regular season play will carry over into a playoff series taking place nearly five months between games. If Bobrovsky is back, the Panthers become an entirely different team than what they were in 2019-20.

Here’s a closer look at this best-of-five showdown.

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ADVANCED STATS

(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)

NY Islanders: 46.45 CF% (29th), 48.65 GF% (23rd), .923 SV% (10th), 7.88 SH% (19th), 100.2 PDO (15th)

Florida: 49.49% CF% (16th), 50.64 GF% (14th), .911 SV% (29th), 9.01 SH% (6th), 100.1 PDO (17th)

TEAM STATS

NY Islanders: 17.3 PP% (24th), 80.7 PK% (15th), 189 GF (24th), 190 GA (6th)

Florida: 21.3 PP% (10th), 78.5 PK% (20th), 228 GF (6th), 224 GA (27th)

HEAD TO HEAD RECORD

NY Islanders: 3-0-0

Florida: 0-2-1

THE SKINNY

The Panthers can put the puck in the net, of that there is no doubt. A team with five 20-goal scorers at the pause, Florida is mostly carried here by the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman and Aleksander Barkov. Don’t sleep on Evgenii Dadonov either. They were one of the highest scoring teams in the league, while the Islanders enter with the third-lowest goal total of any playoff team.

So this is an easy one to pick, right? Not exactly.

What the Isles lack in offensive output they make up for in good team structure. Bet against a Barry Trotz-led team at your own peril, especially with the time he’s had to prepare. Remember, these Isles swept the Penguins last year and held them to just six goals in four games.

New York finished 15th in shots against per game, but were trending in a positive direction in that regard — from Feb. 1 until the pause, the Islanders were one of just 11 teams that allowed less than 30 shots against per game. We should note, however, that they allowed a ton of high danger chances at 5-on-5. Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss were having terrific seasons, and it seems goalies thrive here. They’ll need to, because if the Panthers are allowed a high volume of premium opportunities, we know they’ll take advantage.

Meantime, defence and goaltending was far and away Florida’s weakness this season, which doesn’t bode well since those two elements are usually crucial to playoff success. It doesn’t matter if you measure the full season or just take a snap shot of the final month, the Panthers bleed high quality chances against. If you’re counting on a Sergei Bobrovsky bounce back here (which isn’t a terrible bet), it’s not just as simple as him finding a groove. The defence in front of him is unlikely to do any favours. Of course, just as you shouldn’t discount a Trotz-coached team, the Panthers have a pretty good bench boss as well in Joel Quenneville.

Neither team was showing especially well leading up to the pause — Florida was 7-10-3 in their last 20 games, while the Islanders were 7-8-5. And we still are finding out how each team’s trade deadline pickups will work out. In J-G Pageau, the Islanders know they have a quality penalty-killer who fits naturally on the third line and has some offensive upside. They didn’t have to give up anything on the roster for him either. Florida, however, traded their own second-line centre for a package of players, most notably Lucas Wallmark and Erik Haula, who each tallied two points in seven games. They’re both still a bit of a wild card in terms of what they’ll bring the team.

This is a rematch of a 2016 playoff series the Islanders won in six games. There have been more than few changes to both rosters since then, but the biggest difference-maker that tipped the scales in that series was John Tavares. Do these Isles have someone (maybe Mat Barzal?) who can be their game-breaker this time?

NY Islanders X-Factor: Mat Barzal
The Islanders needed Tavares to lift them over the Panthers a few years ago, and will likewise need a similar impact from a star player this time. They must find goals. Anders Lee and Brock Nelson will be factors here, but Barzal is the first-line centre and leading scorer on the team. In last year’s playoffs, Barzal recorded at least a point in each game against the Penguins, then went cold against Carolina as the Islanders lost four in a row. That could be the difference in this qualifying round series, too. On top of it being the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Barzal also has the added motivation of playing for a contract. He’ll come off his ELC this off-season and be RFA eligible — a strong playoff would solidify his case for a monster pay day.

Florida X-Factor: Sergei Bobrovsky
It has to be, right? Pay a goaltender $10 million against the cap for seven years and he’ll have to be one of your best players if you want to win a couple playoff rounds. The thing is, Bobrovsky was struggling through the worst season of his NHL career before the pause. It wasn’t entirely his fault — the Panthers’ defence was not hard to create chances against — but again, a goaltender making that much money needs to be stealing his own games. It’s hard to expect Florida’s team defence to markedly improve after the pause and without any personnel upgrades, but Bobrovsky could certainly regain something close to Vezina form. And we know what can happen when a goalie gets hot in the playoffs.

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The biggest question facing the Islanders is: Can they find their defensive form from 2019?
Last season, the Islanders were lauded for their defensive structure that frustrated opponents. They were better than the sum of their parts and shocked just about everyone in their first round victory. But this year’s team has not been as consistent on the defensive side of things and against their qualifying round opponent, that could become a huge problem. This is where the break and coaching preparation come in. If the Islanders can return with similar structure and feistiness as they had in 2019, it’ll cause all sorts of problems for a one-dimensional Panthers team.

The biggest question facing Florida is: Can the defence be good enough?
The matchup is interesting for Florida because while they averaged 32.3 shots against per game (22nd in the league) and the ninth-most high danger chances, their qualifying round opponent is not all that strong on offence. Sure, Florida’s penalty kill ranked 20th, but the Islanders power play ranked 24th. Sure, Florida ranked 27th in goals against, but the Islanders offence was 24th in the league. The Panthers don’t need to be the league’s best shutdown team to win this series — they may only need to see minor improvement over regular season play, especially if Bobrovsky comes back a new goalie.

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