Although the Florida Panthers have officially been playoff bound for nearly two weeks, they had to wait until the very last day of the regular season to discover their playoff opponent.
The last two teams the Panthers have faced in the postseason have been the two other New York-area NHL franchises. The Panthers faced the New Jersey Devils twice in 2012 and 2000 and the New York Rangers in 1997, losing all three series. Hopefully they will reverse this trend against New York teams this time around.
The Islanders and Panthers have a lot more in common than you might think. Both the Islanders’ dynasty of the 1980s and the Panthers’ 1995-96 Stanley Cup Final team were built by Hall of Famer Bill Torrey, who still remains an alternate governor to the Panthers. Panthers color commentator Dennis Potvin was also the Hall of Fame captain of those same Islanders teams.
Yet both franchises also share an ignominious distinction. The two teams currently hold the longest active playoff series win droughts in the NHL. The Panthers have not advanced in the playoffs since the ‘95-‘96 season. The Islanders have gone an incredible 21 seasons (’92-’93) since winning a series. Only the Winnipeg Jets/Arizona Coyotes have a longer drought in NHL history with 23 straight seasons without a series win.
So the good news is one of these teams will end their terrible streak. Both teams have had very successful seasons thus far. The Panthers had their best regular season in franchise history whereas the Islanders had back-to-back 100 point seasons for the first time since Potvin and Torrey were still in Long Island. South Florida is certainly not used to playoff hockey, and I know you all have been busy wondering what seed the Heat will end up with.
Lucky for you, I’m going to help by previewing this upcoming series (and hopefully additional ones). Let’s get started by learning a little bit about the Panthers’ next opponent.
The New York Islanders: 45-27-10 (100 Points)
The Islanders have been a solid and steady team from start to finish. Injuries and the rise of the Pittsburgh Penguins caused them to fall into wild-card position, but this team is still incredibly dangerous. They are a well-balanced team, ranking 11th in goals per game (2.8) and 13th overall in goals against (2.5). Their special teams are also impressive with a 17th ranked power play and the strongest point of their team: the fourth best penalty kill unit in the league.
The Islanders’ best player is captain John Tavares, who finished third in MVP voting last year. While Tavares’ numbers are down from the previous year, he still led the team with 33 goals and 70 points. His fellow line linemate, Kyle Okposo, was not far behind with 64 points and a team-leading 42 assists.
The Islanders are known for their impressive depth, they have two more 20-goal scorers (Frans Nielsen and Brock Nelson) and their fourth-line – euphemistically known as “energy guys” – is perhaps the most offensively talented in the league. Guys like Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, and Casey Cizikas all have registered at least 18 points. The Panthers cannot lighten up their defensive pressure even when the “least” talented line is on the ice.
However, the Islanders do have some noticeable weaknesses. Their starting goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, has been out since March with a groin injury. While he has resumed skating it is unlikely he will be healthy enough to play in this series. Halak’s backup, Thomas Greiss, has had an excellent season in relief, amassing an extremely impressive .925 save percentage and an 88 goals allowed percentage (100 is average, anything less than 90 is outstanding).
All that being said, Griess has been a career backup, so it is impossible to guess how he will perform in the playoffs. The Islanders defensemen are also a bit undermanned. Beyond defensive stalwart Johnny Boychuck, their blue-liners have been riddled with injuries and are nowhere near as deep as their crop of forwards.
The Florida Panthers: 47-26-9 (103 Points)
Not to belabor the point, but this is by far the most accomplished regular season team in franchise history, owning the most wins and points of any team. They also set franchise records in longest home winning streak, longest away winning streak, and longest overall winning streak. While I raved about the Islanders’ depth, the Panthers are arguably even deeper.
The are the only team in the entire NHL to have both four 25-plus goal scorers and six 50-plus point scorers. The Islanders probably have the better fourth line, but the Panthers can roll out three extremely proficient lines.
The Panthers enter the playoffs relatively healthy, but there are two major injuries you should be aware of. The first is to center Vincent Trochek, who had, perhaps, the biggest breakout season on a team filled with breakout seasons.
Trochek scored 25 goals and 53 points this year, but injured his foot late in the season blocking a shot. He is expected back sometime during the series, but it is unlikely he will be playing Game 1. His presence would add an extra dimension of firepower as the Panthers could roll out three majorly powerful lines – amounting to nine forwards who have scored at least 34 points this season.
The other injury is Panthers captain Willie Mitchell. Mitchell has been out since January as doctors have advised him not to play due to repeated concussions. Mitchell has been practicing with the team for about a month, but it seems inevitable he will never play another NHL game.
While guys like Jakub Kindl and Steven Kampfer have adequately replaced him in the lineup, Mitchell has won two Stanley Cups and has incredible playoff experience. His leadership on the ice will be missed, but perhaps he can help lead the team off the ice as a consolation.
While the Panthers rank in the Top 10 in both goals for and goals against, they do have one major weakness. Unlike the Islanders, the Panthers’ special teams have been plain bad this year.
They are 23rd on the power play and, disturbingly, ranked 24th in penalty killing, even though they were in the top 10 in penalty killing at the All-Star break. Part of this can be explained by second-half injuries to penalty killing experts like Gudbranson, Mitchell, and Derek McKenzie, but the Panthers must tighten up their PK unit if they want to win the series and continue deep into the playoffs. Strangely, the Panthers have one of the five worst home penalty kills but also one of the ten best away PKs.
The Panthers won the regular season series against the Islanders this year going 2-1-0. They won the first game of the series 3-2, but blew a 2-0 lead in the third period and had to win in the shootout.
The second game went much better for Florida, they dominated the Islanders 5-1 in Brooklyn. That was also the first game in their franchise-record 12 game win streak. The third and final game between the two also resulted in the Panthers losing a 2-0 lead, only the Islanders won in regulation 3-2.
In general, the Panthers have had the Islanders’ number — they are one of only three teams the Panthers have a winning record against (if we count overtime losses as regulation losses). However, this is still not a team to take lightly. Getting to 100 points is easier than it was ten or twenty years ago, but it is still indicative of a very dangerous team. Their plus-16 goal differential is the sixth best in the Eastern Conference, and their core – while relatively young – has certainly been playoff tested.
The Panthers’ core of Barkov, Huberdeau, Ekblad, Trocheck, etc. has not had any playoff experience thus far. That being said, they have plenty of veteran leadership that has been playoff-tested with many of those veterans having won multiple Stanley Cups.
Jaromir Jagr stands out, of course, because he has played in nearly 10 times more playoff games than the entire Panthers franchise. However, players like Brian Campbell, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton, and Jiri Hudler have all played dozens of playoff games. If the veterans can adequately support the youth, the Islanders’ playoff experience should be neutralized.
One final wrinkle to be aware of: the Panthers have had a bad power play all year and the Islanders have a very good penalty killing unit. Not a good combination.
However, when the Panthers play 5-on-5 they have been absolutely dominant. In fact, the Panthers are the best team in the NHL in five-on-five situations – they own the best 5-on-5 GF% (goal differential turned into a percentage) of any NHL team. This means the Panthers both score a lot of goals in 5-on-5 while also not allowing very many goals. The Isles are good in 5-on-5 situations too (they have the 10th best GF%), but if the Panthers can avoid penalties they will have a decided advantage.
Forwards: If both teams were fully healthy this would be a dead-even race. However the Islanders are missing both Anders Lee and Mikhail Grabovski for the entirety of the playoffs. The Panthers will also be missing Trochek, but he is expected to rejoin the team during this series.
The Isles certainly have good defensemen like Boychuck and Nick Leddy, but injuries to Travis Hamonic and a hobbled Calvin de Haan have severely impacted their depth. The Panthers are simply deeper and have two of the best defensemen in the Eastern Conference in Ekblad and Campbell.
All things equal, future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo (64 career playoff games) should be able to outperform career backup Thomas Griess (one career playoff game). I think Griess will put up a strong fight, but this is a big mismatch.
Luongo has a reputation as a playoff choker (which is stupid), but he has very rarely lost in the first round in his career. Plus this will be his first playoff series in Florida, and he will be motivated.
Once again, the Panthers seem to have the advantage here. While the teams may only be separated by three points in the standings the Panthers have the fourth best goal differential (+36) in the entire NHL, not just their conference.
If we use Hockey-Reference’s advanced stats, the Panthers have the much better Simple Rating System (0.42 – also fourth best in the NHL – compared to 0.19) and more total point shares (102.1 vs. 95.8). Using point shares as intended, we see that the Panthers have pretty much reached their potential, whereas the Islanders have overachieved.
Although I give the Panthers an advantage in every category, the truth is the Islanders are not really that far behind in any of those matchups.
Ultimately I think that this Panthers team is ascending and healthier, whereas the Islanders may soon be selling off pieces. It is unfortunate both teams face each other in the first round since I think both are capable of winning a playoff series, but, homerism aside, I honestly believe the Panthers are simply the better team.
Final Prediction: Panthers in 6