Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play Plan will see the resumption of games, as the league attempts to accomplish its goal of awarding the 2020 Stanley Cup. Exhibition, qualifier and postseason matches are slated to take place during that time. The 24-team tournament is scheduled to begin August 1, with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will feature 16 teams playing eight best-of-five series. There will also be a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine the seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Feel free to check out our Western Conference qualifying round previews if you haven’t done so already. Those include the Edmonton Oilers versus the Chicago Blackhawks, the Nashville Predators against the Arizona Coyotes, the Vancouver Canucks facing off against the Minnesota Wild and the Calgary Flames versus the Winnipeg Jets. We have continued our previews with the Eastern Conference, including the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Montreal Canadiens and the Carolina Hurricanes against the New York Rangers. Today we’ll continue with the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders.
This is a really classic matchup between an offensive powerhouse and defensive juggernaut. They were just two points apart from each other in the standings when the season was paused, but how they got there was very different.
The Panthers did make an effort over the summer of 2019 to address their goaltending problems. After Roberto Luongo posted an 18-16-5 record, 3.12 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 43 games in 2018-19 and James Reimer finished with a 13-12-5 record, 3.09 GAA, and .900 save percentage in 36 contests, signing a top-tier goaltender was a priority. So the Panthers inked Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70 million contract and that…was a questionable decision.
Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and has shown that when he’s at his best, he can carry a team on his back, but consistency has been an issue for him and that’s a pretty big issue if you’re planning on locking someone up for seven seasons at top dollar. In his first season with the Panthers, Bobrovsky hasn’t been the answer to their problems. He’s posted a 23-19-6 record, 3.23 GAA, and .900 save percentage in 50 games. If he shines in the playoffs then all will be forgiven, but he’s not the reason why the Panthers made it to the qualifying round.
Instead the Panthers’ strength in the regular season was their offense. Jonathan Huberdeau led the charge with 23 goals and 78 points in 69 games while Aleksander Barkov and Mike Hoffman backed him up with 62 and 59 points respectively. The Panthers had depth too. They entered the pause with five different players who scored at least 20 goals and an additional two players who crossed the 15-goal milestone. By contrast, only two Islanders players (Brock Nelson and Anders Lee) scored at least 20 goals. The Panthers finished the season in the top-10 in goals scored while the Islanders were in the bottom-10 of the league. There’s no question which team has the edge in terms of forwards.
The bigger question is if the Islanders can shutdown the Panthers’ offense. While the Panthers struggled defensively, that was the Islanders’ bread-and-butter this season. The Islanders ranked ninth in the league in terms of goals allowed per game at 2.79 while Florida was tied for 28th place at 3.25. Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss proved to be an effective duo in goal for the Islanders. Varlamov finished with a 19-14-6 record, 2.62 GAA, and .914 save percentage in 45 contests while Greiss posted a 16-9-4 record, 2.74 GAA, and .913 save percentage in 31 games. While Bobrovsky is a safe bet to be the starter for the Panthers, it’s not clear which of the Islanders’ netminders will be in goal for Game 1 of this series. Neither of the Islanders’ goaltenders has a ton of playoff experience, though both of them are veterans with some postseason games on their resume.
Speaking of playoff experience, that edge goes to the Islanders. They made it to the second round last year while the Panthers only appeared in one playoff series from 2013-19. The Panthers do have a handful of players with meaningful postseason experience though, with the most noteworthy among them being Anton Stralman. He has 104 playoff games on his resume between his stints with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning. He can help guide the Panthers’ less experienced players while also logging big minutes throughout the series.
Though players aren’t the only ones who can impart experience and that leads us to one of the few aspects where both of these teams excel: Their coaching. The Islanders’ Barry Trotz versus the Panthers’ Joel Quenneville is one of the best head coaching matchups possible. They’re the fourth and second best coaches of all-time in terms of regular season wins. On top of that, they have a combined three Jack Adams Awards and four Stanley Cup championships. There is arguably no greater possible matchup than these two in terms of active coaches. It will be very interesting to watch that aspect of this series unfold.
Ultimately though, with such different teams, it does come down to which style of play will be better suited for this series. Typically speaking, the defensive team tends to have the edge and that philosophy was backed up in their regular season matches. The Islanders swept the three-game series by containing the Panthers in each and every game. Over the three contests, Florida only scored a combined four goals, though each game was close. This should be a hard fought series, but the Islanders have the edge in it.
Players to Watch:
Sergei Bobrovsky (FLA) – As mentioned above, Bobrovsky left plenty to be desired in the regular season, but he’s the big X-Factor in this series. If he can step up then that whole offense vs. defense narrative between these two teams goes out the window. Bobrovsky has the potential to make the Panthers the complete package and a real dark horse not just for this series, but for the postseason in general.
Mathew Barzal (NYI) – Barzal was just a sophomore in 2019, but he shined in the playoffs with two goals and seven points in eight contests. He’s got an opportunity to step up once again and help cement himself early in his career as someone who can be counted on in the postseason. The Islanders don’t have a lot of offensive weapons, which makes Barzal all the more important to them in this series.
Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA) – Huberdeau is in his eighth season, but because he’s spent his whole career to this point with Florida, he has next to no playoff experience. He had a goal and three points in six postseason games back in 2016 and that’s it. He’s been a good forward for a while, but over the last two seasons he’s emerged as one of the league’s top players. Now he has a chance to show what he can do as a leader of his team when the stakes are at their highest.
Jordan Eberle (NYI) – The 2019-20 campaign was a mixed bag for Eberle. He had just three goals and 17 points in his first 31 games, but heated up with 13 goals and 23 points in his last 27 contests. After the long pause, that hot streak is kind of moot, but it does show just how dominate Eberle can be when he’s at his best. Eberle has also been inconsistent in the playoffs. He was limited to just two assists in 13 games with Edmonton back in 2017 and then scored four goals and nine points in eight contests with the Islanders in 2019. Which version of Eberle shows up in the 2020 postseason will go a long way towards determining the Islanders’ fate.
Aleksander Barkov (FLA) – Similar to Huberdeau, Barkov has just six games worth of playoff experience on his resume. Back in 2016 when the Panthers last made the playoffs, Barkov was just starting to emerge as a force in the league. Now he’s established himself as a top-tier forward and is one of the main weapons the Islanders will be looking to shut down. Barkov is also a great all-around player though, so it’s not just a question of containing him when he has the puck. He ranked in the top-five in Selke Trophy voting in 2018 and 2019.