After a brutal slump just before the shutdown, the New York Islanders will have a new lease on life against the Florida Panthers.
On Tuesday, the sports world received the best news it’s heard in quite some time: hockey is coming back. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the regular season has officially come to a close and that the league will resume play with a 24-team playoff format.
Based on the regular-season rankings, the seventh seed New York Islanders will take on the 10th seed Florida Panthers in a best-of-five qualifying series.
This will be a particularly interesting series to follow: The offensively strong and creative Panthers meet one of the best defensive teams in the league in the Islanders. Let’s take a look at how the two sides match up.
The Islanders started off the 2019-20 season as one of the hottest teams in the league but really fell off a few months in. They had lost a dreadful seven games straight before the season was suspended due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
They may have needed this break more than any other team in the league.
The Islanders had fallen victim to injury more than once over the past few months.
The good news for them is that they will be getting centerman Casey Cizikas and defenseman Johnny Boychuk back. Both veterans will add some playoff experience to the roster and in fact, both were a part of the 2015-16 Isles squad that beat Florida in the first round.
The best news, however, is that Adam Pelech will be available after injuring his Achilles tendon in January and was thought to be done for the year. Pelech is arguably the team’s best defenseman and gives the Isles a major boost during the most important time of year.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, their very promising goaltending prospect Ilya Sorokin will not be available because he’s yet to sign an entry-level deal and players aren’t allowed to sign contracts that would make them eligible for this postseason.
Instead, the team will turn to the goalie tandem of Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, hoping that they’ll be able to hold down the fort in net.
Even so, they match up well with Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky who was signed to a massive contract this past offseason. He hasn’t quite met expectations just yet — Florida is the worst team in the league in GAA.
The goalie duo of Greiss and Varlamov, on the other hand, are sixth in the league in that statistic.
Offensively speaking, the Islanders don’t really have a line that can match the deadly Florida line comprised of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Mike Hoffman.
Nonetheless, they do have some offensive threats. Star player Mathew Barzal is one of the best young centers in the league, Anthony Beauvillier is having a bounce-back year, and Brock Nelson has been lights-out all season.
They also added center Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline, who will look to provide a spark in the playoffs.
The Islanders’ offense is far from formidable and they’re worse than several playoff teams in that regard, but head coach Barry Trotz may be able to really get his forwards going if he shuffles some of the lines.
The Panthers were doing much better than the Islanders when the season came to a halt, but the latter will be very tough to take down, especially since their defense is basically a brick wall.
Getting past the Islanders’ defense and goalies is a difficult feat and even though the Panthers have some truly excellent forwards, they’re going to have their work cut out for them.
Something to note: The last time the Panthers were in the playoffs was that first-round exit to the Islanders in 2016. The Panthers have also dropped all three of their games against the Islanders this season.
Florida ended the regular season on a high note and the Islanders have really been struggling, but it would be naïve to count them out.
They boast one of the best goalie tandems and defenses in the league, plus their offense can pack some punch when things are going right for them. This should be a fun series to follow.