Although it seems like just yesterday that the Panthers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 7-1 to kick off what would be record-breaking season for the franchise, the regular season is now over. They’ve now turned their attention to the New York Islanders who lost to those very same Flyers on Sunday night to become Florida’s opponent for their first playoff series since 2012 which will begin on Thursday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.
It was an upbeat yet confident atmosphere at the Panthers’ practice facility in Coral Springs on Monday morning as the team reconvened after Saturday’s regular season finale for its first practice of the post-season. Nothing was different in the way the team went about things, however, and the only signs of the playoffs being imminent were the new ‘Stanley Cup Playoffs’ logos which were now painted onto the ice.
“Nothing really changes,” said Nick Bjugstad. “We gotta kind of prep the same way we have all year. Obviously the adrenaline level will be a little higher for a lot of us to begin with. We gotta stay even keel.”
“This is game 83,” said Panthers’ GM Dale Tallon on Monday. “We’ve gotta keep doing what we’ve been doing all year and do it better, that’s all. The focus is Thursday’s game and that’s it. We have to take care of our own business.”
The Panthers capped off their record-setting season during which they reached a new high in wins (47), points (103), number of players with at least 50 points (6), and number of players with at least 20 goals (5), among others. Those records are in addition to several players, including Aleksander Barkov, Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Vincent Trocheck, and Jonathan Huberdeau, who all reached career-highs in a multitude of categories to help propel the team the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
“It’s been satisfying,” said Tallon. “But we’re not anywhere near where we need to be yet, where we wanna be. Last year we were the most improved team in the league and we continued on that path this year.”
The Panthers finally found out about their first round opponent on Sunday night after the Islanders lost to the Flyers by a score of 5-2. Had the Islanders won the game, the Panthers would’ve faced an opponent that is presumably tougher in that of the New York Rangers. Either way, none of the players seemed to be worried about the matchup and instead would rather focus on themselves.
“I’m more worried about what’s going on in here than what’s going on over there,” said Shawn Thornton who’s won the Stanley Cup with both Boston and Anaheim. “We have to be ready to show up and work hard.”
“If you say so,” replied Jonathan Huberdeau when told about the rumor that the Islanders purposely lost in order to play the Panthers. “I didn’t watch [Sunday], I didn’t even care. I was just resting my body, and we think about ourselves first. We know we’ll be ready, it didn’t matter who we’re playing.”
Social media lit up with fans and analysts alike who were upset with the fact that the Panthers and Islanders series was the only first round matchup to feature back-to-back games with game 1 and 2 being on Thursday and Friday. The BB&T Center was booked for a concert on Wednesday while the Islanders’ Barclays Center has boxing events on both Saturday and Sunday, so the league was forced to give the teams a back-to-back in order to fit the games in.
(Games 5, 6, 7 are scheduled for April 22nd, 24th, and 26th respectively if necessary.)
“The Islanders have to play the same schedule as us so we’re just trying to focus on what we gotta do,” said Bjugstad. “We’ve played back-to-back quite a bit this year so it is what it is.”
“I played back-to-back games earlier this year at home so I felt great in both of them,” said Roberto Luongo who will be playing in the playoffs for the 7th time in his career and first time as a member of the Florida Panthers. “That shouldn’t be an issue, but I think right now the main focus has gotta be on game 1. We don’t wanna worry about something we cannot control…[the Islanders] have the same schedule as us.”
The Panthers have a record of 8-4-2 in the second game of back-to-back sets this season.
Despite having such a young core, the Panthers are loaded with players that have extensive playoff pedigrees. Jaromir Jagr, who is currently in his 25th NHL season, has amassed 202 playoff games in the league while winning 2 Stanley Cups, with his most recent visit to the post-season being with the Bruins during the 2013-14 season.
“Well we’ll see,” said Tallon when asked if Jagr would be able to find another gear when the playoffs begin on Thursday. “He’s had a great history, he’s won two Cups, and he wants to win.”
Also leading the way is Shawn Thornton (101 playoff games), who won a Cup with Anaheim in the 2006-07 season and another with the Bruins during the 2010-11 season, Roberto Luongo, who has played in 64 playoff games, Brian Campbell, who won a Cup with Chicago in 2010, as well as Jussi Jokinen (48), Teddy Purcell (22), Jakub Kindl (19), Derek MacKenzie (6), and Jiri Hudler (77). In addition to Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov (7) and Erik Gudbranson (7) played for the Panthers during the 2012 Playoffs in the 7-game series against the Devils, so they have a bit of experience as well, albeit not as much as the other veterans on the team. Willie Mitchell, who has played since January but has been practicing for weeks with the team, has 89 career playoff games as well as 2 Stanley Cup victories.
“I’m super excited,” said Luongo. “That’s why we play, this is what it’s all about right here. It’s only Monday and you already got butterflies…I’m sure everybody feels the same, we’ve worked extremely hard for an 82-game schedule to get where we’re at. It’s gonna be tough we gotta enjoy it at the same time.”
When it comes to the first round matchup, we should all be in for a good ride. The Islanders are looking to win their first playoff series since 1993 while the Panthers are hoping for their first series win since 1996 when they went on a magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Jaromir Jagr and the Pittsburgh Penguins were defeated by the Islanders in that 1993 playoff series, and Roberto Luongo was originally drafted by the Islanders 4th overall in the 1997 NHL Draft and played 24 games for them before being traded to the Panthers in 2000. The two teams have never met in the postseason.
In the season series this year, the Panthers won 2 of 3 games against the Islanders with a combined score of 10-6. In the first game of the season series on November 27th, the Panthers went up 2-0 with goals from Brandon Pirri and Jussi Jokinen, but the Islanders came back to score 2 straight in the 3rd period off the sticks of Ryan Strome and Josh Bailey, sending the game to overtime and eventually a shootout. Each of the first 9 shooters scored which set an NHL record for the most consecutive goals to start a shootout, however it was Aleksander Barkov who scored the winner in the fifth round with his signature one-handed move.
The two teams played for the second time this season on December 15th when the Panthers won 5-1 in New York to get the first of what ended up being a franchise record 12 straight victories while also ending the Islanders’ 10-game point streak (8-0-2 in last 10 games at the time). Despite being outplayed and outshot 34-16, the Panthers were incredibly opportunistic and got goals from Barkov (GWG), Huberdeau, Trocheck, Smith, and Ekblad. Barkov and Jokinen had 2 assists as well while John Tavares had no points and was a -1.
The third and final game of the season series fell on March 14th when the Islanders narrowly defeated the Panthers by a score of 3-2, and it ended up being one of the toughest losses to take this season. The Panthers were up 2-0 heading into the 3rd period after goals from Barkov and Bjugstad in the 1st and 2nd periods respectively, however that lead evaporated in the final frame as the Islanders got 3 straight goals from Okposo, Bailey, and Clutterbuck to seal the deal. Jussi Jokinen’s 10-game point streak came to an end as he went without a point for the first time in weeks.
Both teams are fairly similar in that they have top centers in Aleksander Barkov and John Tavares who anchor highly-skilled and highly-offensive lines, and that matchup will be huge throughout the series. In the 3 games between the two teams this season, Tavares had just 1 assist and 3 shots on net despite averaging over 21 minutes of ice-time while Barkov had 2 goals, 3 assists, and 9 shots while averaging about 2 fewer minutes of ice-time. Barkov has been on an absolute tear this season as he set a career-high in goals (28) and assists (31) in just 66 games as a result of injuries, and he was on pace for 34 goals had he been able to play in the full 82-game season. The 20-year old center finished the season on a career-high 9-game point streak during which he recorded 5 goals and 8 assists while being his typical, impressive self on the defensive side of the puck.
“Well they’ve got some great offensive players,” said Dale Tallon of the Islanders. “Defensively, we’ve gotta be really solid and our power-play’s gotta get going. We’ve gotta make sure we play our defensive style and be really aware of their highly offensive and skilled players. They’ve got a lot of good players. This is gonna be a great series, evenly matched.”
“No, no, no,” said Gerard Gallant when asked if the matchup between the team’s top players would be a key to the series. “It’s about your team. It’s not about top lines or top players, it’s about 20 guys being ready to play.”
Both sides have also had some injuries over the past several weeks, although the Islanders seem to have taken a bigger hit than the Panthers as they’re currently without starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak who took some shots on April 9th but still has no timetable for a return. They’re also without Travis Hamonic who was ruled out for the rest of the regular season after suffering a lower-body injury on March 31st, and although he skated with the team on April 9th, he too has no estimated time of return to the lineup. Anders Lee, who has produced a good amount of offense while in the Islanders’ middle-6 this season and is one of their bigger bodies is also out with a fractured fibula which he suffered on April 7th, so it’s likely he’ll be out for most of the series, if not all of it. Finally, Mikhail Grabovski has been out since early February and it’s likely he’ll miss the series as well as he has no timetable for a return.
The Panthers are currently without Vincent Trocheck who suffered a fractured fibula on March 29th against the Maple Leafs, however Dale Tallon told the media on Monday that he’s “day-to-day” and they’re hoping he returns sooner rather than later. Trocheck has been a pleasant surprise this season for the Panthers and has played an integral role in their offense all year long. Playing in his first full season in the NHL (aside from the injury), the 22-year old center more than tripled his goal mark of 7 from last year and reached the 25-goal plateau for the first time in his career. He has been a part of the Panthers’ second line with Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen who have terrorized the opposition, especially over the past couple of months, so getting him back when he’s healthy will be a huge boost offensively. Erik Gudbranson has also missed the past few games after re-aggravating a foot injury that he originally suffered a few weeks ago, but he practiced on Monday and Tallon said that he “looks like he’ll be ready to go” for Thursday. Steven Kampfer remains out for the forseeable future with an ankle injury, leaving the Panthers without one of their solid depth defensemen.
With Halak out indefinitely, Greiss is slated to be the starter for game 1, and although he started out as the back-up at the beginning of the season, his numbers have been pretty good since taking over in early March. The 30-year old from Germany set a career-high in wins with 23 and finished 3rd in the NHL with a save percentage of .920, so it’s clear that he’s more than capable of putting in some quality starts for the Islanders. With Jean-Francois Berube hurt, New York has 23-year old Finland-native Christopher Gibson serving as the back-up for Greiss, and in 4 career NHL games, he has allowed 11 goals and is 1-1 in the 2 games he has started. Greiss has virtually no playoff experience (1 game), so it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to handle the pressure and change in atmosphere of the postseason.
On the Panthers’ side of things, they’re in pretty good shape with Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya between the pipes. Although Luongo is expected to start game 1 and probably game 2, the Panthers have a really solid back-up option in Montoya as he’s been very good for them all season long. Luongo tied his franchise-record 35 wins after defeating the Hurricanes on Saturday and his save percentage (0.922) and goals-against average (2.35) are both better than his career average. He’s come up with some huge saves for the Panthers this season, as has Montoya who has picked up where Luongo left off each time he started, posting a 2.18 goals-against average and .919 save percentage to go along with 12 wins. Goaltending will be another key in this season as being able to make a save at the right moment could mean the difference between winning and losing and even more-so than during the regular season.
Another key to the series for both teams will be the 4th lines. Over the past couple of months, the Panthers have, for the most part and all things considered, used Garrett Wilson, Derek MacKenzie, and either Shawn Thornton or Quinton Howden as the forwards on the 4th line. There’s also Greg McKegg, but it’s a small sample size for him and he may not get to start over the others. Derek MacKenzie has done most of the scoring on the 4th line this year with 6 goals and 7 assists which isn’t too bad considering the role he plays and Garrett Wilson has yet to get a point through 29 games, however his stat line isn’t very indicative of his play; his positioning is very good and he’s a strong physical presence, especially along the boards and around the net.
Shawn Thornton will likely get a fair amount of playing time in the series especially considering tough guy Matt Martin has a home on the Islanders’ 4th line along with Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas. The Islanders may have a slight edge when it comes to the skill on the bottom line as Clutterbuck has 15 goals on the season while Cizikas and Martin have 8 and 10 respectively. The Panthers won’t necessarily need their 4th line to be a goal-scoring machine considering the Islanders’ 4th line has a combined 1 goal and 1 assist against them this year, but they’ll need to be aware nonetheless. Fortunately for the Panthers, Derek MacKenzie has been very good at surpressing goals this season as he has a Goals Against per 60 rate of just 0.94 and that should help with keeping the Islanders’ 4th-liners in check.
Like the Panthers, the Islanders are fairly strong on the backend with guys like Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, and Calvin De Haan. Leddy leads the team in scoring by defenseman with 5 goals and 35 assists while Boychuk leads the team’s defensemen with 9 goals. Aside from Leddy, the Islanders haven’t gotten much offense from the blue-line especially with Hamonic being out for the past several weeks. The Panthers, however, have been able to muster a decent amount of offense out of the defensemen this season as Aaron Ekblad leads the way with 15 goals and 21 assists while Brian Campbell isn’t far behind with 6 goals and 25 assists. Both have been workhorses and possession monsters for the Panthers this season and they’ll be key when it comes to generating offense for not only the defensemen but the forwards as well. They’ve also gotten some secondary scoring on the backend from Dmitry Kulikov and Alex Petrovic, so that’s a plus.
Advanced stats are always interesting to look at, so let’s glance over some of the main ones.
In this graph, we can see the rolling 25-game average score-adjusted Corsi For% of both the Panthers and Islanders. Essentially what this shows is the change over the course of the season of both teams with regards to their possession numbers, and when we look at the on-ice performance of both teams, these trends line up fairly well with them. We’re able to see that the Panthers’ score-adjusted Corsi For% began trending upwards after some lineup changes made by Gerard Gallant in late-November, including separating the defensive pairing of Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson which was hemorrhaging shot attempts.
In February, we see the Panthers’ possession rate trending down as the team began dealing with some injuries, including that of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, among others, and then things began trending back up ever since the trade deadline acquisitions of Jakub Kindl, Jiri Hudler, and Teddy Purcell. The Islanders, on the other hand, have been suffering from injuries to key players like Hamonic and Grabovski, so as they continue to trend down, the Panthers should have the upper hand when it comes to generating shot attempts which we know is a good predictor of future goals for.
Statistically, the Islanders’ projected top line of Neilsen, Tavares, and Okposo has been very good in their limited amount of ice-time together (74 minutes) as they have a Goals For per 60 of 4,85 and a Goals Against per 60 of 0.81, meaning they score and a lot and allow virtually nothing. John Tavares is one of the team’s top performers possession-wise, so he’ll be one to keep on eye for not only Barkov but the entire Panthers team.
The Panthers’ best line combination this season has been the line of Jokinen, Trocheck, and Smith which has a Corsi For% of 57.00 and a Goals Against Per 60 rate of just 1.33 in about 450 minutes of ice-time. However, Trocheck is currently out of the lineup as he recovers from a leg injury, so we can only hope that they’re reunited in the very near future. The top line of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Jagr hasn’t been as dominating with regards to generating shot attempts considering the time they spend in the offensive zone, but they’ve still been very good at scoring goals (especially as of late) and suppressing them, so the line will be a huge key for the Panthers as well.
The Panthers’ top performers are Jakub Kindl (55% CF) on the blue-line and Jussi Jokinen (53% CF) up front, and they’ve been excellent at generating shot attempts this season as well as making players around them better. You can read more about Jakub Kindl in our recent article by clicking here. To put it simply, the Panthers have been very good at scoring goals this season so the hope is that they can continue that trend in the playoffs, although they’ll want to get their power play going a bit especially since the Islanders have the 4th-best penalty killing percentage in the league. The Islanders are 15th in the league (6.7) in Goals For per 60 and 11th in the league in Scoring Chances For per 60 (51.6) on the power play while the Panthers are 23rd (6.0) and 24th (43.1) respectively, so New York has a decent edge with the man-advantage. Staying disciplined and out of the box will be absolutely key for the Panthers especially since they’ve committed some tough penalties over the past several weeks which have put them in a difficult spot.
In the end, we know that the Panthers can beat any team on any given night as it’s something they’ve shown us numerous times over the course of the season. They haven’t had the best starts to their games over the past few weeks but have shown the ability to remain level-headed and confident in their abilities to come back from deficits, although that certainly shouldn’t be the game-plan. Florida boasts a record of 37-3-2 when scoring at least 3 goals this season and 36 of the team’s 47 wins have come when they’ve scored first. If they’re able to accomplish both of those things in every game, the odds will be weighted heavily in their favor.
The Panthers will win this series if they play how they have been for pretty much the entire season, and that’s by working hard in all 3 zones and constantly being aware of the opponent. The Islanders are a good team and there’s no doubt about that, but the Panthers have the ability to beat them as they have twice this season if they stick to what they’re good at.
“I’m really happy for our fans who have been patient and put up with us for a long time,” said Tallon.