It’s playoff time again, which means it’s also time for our Breaking It Down series. That’s where I – and I alone – take a look at the post-season matchups and provide is a snapshot of the action to come. This edition features a look at the Eastern Conference matchup between the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers. Game One is on Thursday.
Jaromir Jagr has led the Panthers to its second division title in franchise history and he’s done so at the ripe age of 44. He delivered 66 points in 79 games this season, including five power play goals and four game-winners, and he’s been able to take over. His play has largely been responsible for putting Florida in the post-season for the first time in four years.
The Islanders, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series since 1993. They’re in the post-season for the third time in four seasons, but you have to imagine they’re tired of barely scraping it together. It’s interesting to consider that the last time they won a series was against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Patrick Division Final in 1993. And one Jaromir Jagr was suited up for that incarnation of the Penguins. Time is a funny thing.
Roberto Luongo has been saving the day since he returned to the Panthers in March of 2014. And after seven full seasons in Florida, he’s finally ready for a little of that playoff hockey. He’s coming off an All-Star season and he hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2013, when he was still in the good graces of the Vancouver Canucks. You can bet he’ll be ready; he led the Canucks to the Final in 2011 and managed four shutouts in 25 post-season games.
The Islanders will start Thomas Greiss thanks to an injury to Jaroslav Halak and that may temper things a little. The 30-year-old netminder posted a 23-11-4 record with a .925 save percentage and a 2.36 goals against average. Those are some pretty good numbers, but Greiss has only seen action in one playoff game. He’ll have to do, as Halak isn’t expected back until the end of the first round.
Travis Hamonic is expected back at some point in the first round, but New York will have to start without him thanks to a lower body injury. He’s been the team’s leader in ice time, which means Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk will have even more to do. The top pairing brings nice balance and some offensive options, with Boychuk able to wire the puck through traffic and Leddy quarterbacking the man-advantage.
Aaron Ekblad and Brian Campbell account for the top pair for the Panthers. They can move the puck and create offensive opportunities, with Ekblad posting 36 points in 78 games. Dmitry Kulikov has benefitted from the presence of Jakub Kindl, who could see a promotion in minutes when the post-season gets underway. Kulikov is nearing the 20-minute mark and has the wheels to push the attack.
Jagr has fit in well with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau as a top line and that’s brought the whole team up a level. The Panthers have six players to hit the 50-point mark, with four players posting at least 25 goals. Those are some serious offensive numbers for this franchise and it should bear fruit in the playoffs, especially with the Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen padding the stats. Trocheck may not be entirely ready to start, however.
The Islanders aren’t as balanced in terms of the forward core, but John Tavares still leads the way. He has 70 points in 78 games. Kyle Okposo is still set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, but he could go out with a bang in the playoffs. He has six points in his last four games and posted 64 points on the season. Frans Nielsen is another solid offensive option, with 52 points in 81 games. The 24-year-old is also a free agent come July.
The Panthers are capable of filling the net in most situations, but their special teams could use a lot of work and that could prove to be their weakness. The Islanders, meanwhile, can kill penalties and may have the edge in the category. But they’ll struggle in this series, especially if they can’t get reliable goaltending from the untested Greiss.
If Florida can become a more efficient team in key situations, they could have the Islanders on the ropes. They have more scoring depth and are capable of playing a more experienced, more relaxed style of play. That could go a long way here, as both teams are hungry to get out of the first round for the first time in a long time.
With these considerations in mind, I’m going to give the nod to the Panthers in five games.