A look at how the New York Islanders are likely to line up in the Qualifying Round against the Florida Panthers.
The NHL season is set to return on Saturday, and the No. 7 New York Islanders, with their brick wall defense, will be taking on the offensively dangerous No. 10 Florida Panthers in the Qualifying Round.
The Islanders swept the Panthers during the regular season, beating them in all three matchups, but this will be another story. The Islanders had an excellent start to the season, picking up where they left off last year.
However, they grew ice-cold beginning in December, going 6-8-5 between the All-Star break and the suspension of the season.
This will be the Panthers’ first playoff appearance since 2016 when they lost to none other than the Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round.
Their offense is prolific and they’re going to be hungry to make as deep a run as possible. For these reasons, many are picking the lower-seeded Panthers to knock off the Islanders
However, the Islanders are a team with an elite defense, very good goaltending, and an offense that can be productive when things are clicking.
The fact that they’re coached by Barry Trotz, who took the Washington Capitals all the way in 2018 and is one of the very best in the business, doesn’t hurt.
The Islanders faced the New York Rangers in an exhibition game on Wednesday night in Toronto, the hub city of both teams, and we were able to get a look at the lines Trotz may be inclined to put out against the Panthers.
Here’s how we expect Trotz to line his players up on Saturday:
Anders Lee-Mathew Barzal-Jordan Eberle
Anthony Beauvillier-Brock Nelson-Josh Bailey
Ross Johnston-Jean-Gabriel Pageau-Derick Brassard
Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck
Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock
Devon Toews-Scott Mayfield
Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk
Islanders Forward Lines
There’s nothing too crazy here but some names are worth noting.
For starters, even though the top two lines listed are the ones Trotz went with for most of the season, Anders Lee and Anthony Beauvillier as the first- and second-line left wingers, respectively, are not solidified.
They’ll almost certainly be deployed in that manner to kick things off, but they might not stay on their designated lines for long.
As I mentioned in my recap of Lee’s season so far, he was able to match a career-high in assists with 23 and would’ve certainly surpassed that mark had the regular season resumed, but his season can still be deemed a disappointment.
Lee plays on the team’s most productive line but found difficulty putting the puck in the net as often as he should have. In fact, he scored just three goals in his last 16 games.
To add to that, Beauvillier found himself in the midst of a bounce-back season before play was suspended. He had just three points and was playing poor defensively in his last 14 games, but it was an overall great year for him in which he emerged as one of the team’s best forwards.
It’s also important to note that Beauvillier and Mathew Barzal formed one of the highest-scoring duos on the team. Granted, as mentioned above, the Islanders were one of the coldest teams in the league later on and that’s reflected in the numbers.
Lee will look to turn things around in order to keep his spot on the top line. Meanwhile, Beauvillier will try to forget his recent struggles and revert to his excellent play from earlier in the season.
The third-line left winger spot is also unconfirmed. Many expect Trotz to go with Tom Kuhnhackl and take it from there, but he deployed Ross Johnston at that spot in Wednesday’s exhibition game instead. Not only did Johnston look good, but he ended up notched an assist on the game-winning goal.
It’s hard to see Trotz benching Johnston for Kuhnhackl after that performance, but Kuhnhackl will likely be the extra forward that the Islanders dress.
Islanders Defensive Pairings
When Adam Pelech tore his Achilles tendon in January and was ruled out for the season, the Islanders knew they were in trouble. The stoppage of play came as a blessing, as Pelech is healthy and ready to start.
The Islanders have one of the best defensive corps in the league, but Pelech is their best blueliner and makes an indescribable impact when he’s on the ice. Together with Ryan Pulock, they form the team’s best defensive pairing and one of the best pairings in the NHL.
They will undoubtedly be the top pairing against the Panthers and will look to stop their threatening top line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Mike Hoffman.
Rookie Noah Dobson has looked very solid, but it’s hard to fathom Trotz tapping him to be the team’s seventh defenseman over Andy Greene, whom the Islanders acquired from the New Jersey Devils before the trade deadline.
Greene can still get the job done, is a good veteran presence, and brings leadership to the team. Not to mention, he has 50 games of playoff experience under his belt, more than most of his teammates.
Dobson, on the other hand, has played just 34 NHL games in his career.
Varlamov was signed before the season began but didn’t meet expectations and Trotz ended up rotating Varlamov and Greiss. The two essentially split time with Varlamov playing a handful more games. It seemed to work, but Trotz has a decision to make.
Trotz had said he wasn’t certain who would start against the Panthers but gave Varlamov the start against the Rangers on Wednesday.
That move signifies that Trotz is likely leaning towards giving Varlamov the nod in the Qualifying Round, but Varlamov’s play during the exhibition game almost cemented it. Varlamov played the first two periods and was the star of the game, making 19 saves on 19 shots.
Greiss has excellent career numbers against the Panthers – he was actually the Islanders’ goalie when they faced them in the playoffs in 2016 and was fantastic.
However, Varlamov has looked sharp, and benching your $20 million goalie is never a good look. Expect him to get the start, but Greiss might have his chance later in the series if Varlamov falters. In a shortened series, there’s no time to waste.
The Islanders have a difficult task ahead of them. They’re facing a high-scoring team and coming off a cold streak that ended their regular season.
However, the stoppage of play may have come to the benefit of the Islanders more than most. They’ve had several months to put that slump behind them and return to the exciting team we saw early on.
They have a defense and goaltending tandem that are capable of stopping the best of the best and their offense boasts talented forwards who will look to give the struggling Sergei Bobrovsky nightmares.
A stellar offense meets an impenetrable defense. This should make for an exciting matchup.