Islanders vs. Panthers: Breaking down matchups and a prediction – New York Post

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The last time they played a game that counted — 144 days ago — the Islanders had just recently slipped out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Saturday, they will jump right into the NHL’s 24-team tournament with a new lease on life.

In a rematch of the 2016 Eastern Conference first round, the Islanders will meet the Panthers on Saturday inside the Toronto bubble to begin a best-of-five series in the Stanley Cup qualifiers. Barry Trotz’s club will do so with a healthier lineup than the last time they took the ice, a March 10 shootout loss to the Canucks before COVID-19 suspended the regular season.

After making a surprise run to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last year, the Islanders are back looking for more with a veteran group in tow. Though they swept the Panthers during the regular-season series, 3-0, their next meetings will be a challenge unlike any either side has faced before.

The matchups

Goaltending

The Islanders were reportedly interested in Sergei Bobrovsky last offseason, only to see him sign a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers. They then pivoted to land Semyon Varlamov on a four-year, $20 million deal. Now the two will face off with more than bragging rights on the line.

Varlamov is expected to get the start in Game 1, after playing the first two periods of Wednesday’s exhibition against the Rangers. He was solid in his first season with the Islanders, posting a 2.62 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage — numbers that were even better before a rough five-game stretch ahead of the stoppage. Should Trotz opt to use both goalies, Thomas Greiss (2.74 GAA, .913 save percentage) was nearly just as steady this season.

At the other end, which Bobrovsky shows up? The one who became one of the league’s top goalies and was in net for the Blue Jackets during their stunning sweep of the Lightning last postseason, or the one who put up career-worst numbers (3.23 GAA, .900 save percentage) in 48 starts this season? The answer could go a long way in tilting the series.

Edge: Islanders

Defense

The Islanders got a big boost in this category thanks to the delayed postseason. Had COVID-19 not interrupted the season, it’s unlikely Adam Pelech would have been available for the playoffs. Instead, he is back from a torn Achilles and ready to slot back into the top pair with Ryan Pulock with the critical task of trying to contain the Panthers’ top weapons.

Pelech’s presence gives the Islanders depth on the blue line, leaving Trotz with some difficult choices regarding his six defensemen — or possibly seven, as the coach left the door open to going with 11 forwards and seven defenseman. Playoff veteran Johnny Boychuk is also back after recovering from taking a skate to the eyelid shortly before the season was paused.

The Panthers get big minutes from their top defensive pair of Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar. Ekblad (36 assists) and Keith Yandle (40 assists) also contribute offensively, with another former Ranger, Anton Stralman, anchoring the second pair. But on the whole, the Panthers defense was one of the most porous this season — allowing 179 even-strength goals in 69 games.

Edge: Islanders

Forwards

All season, the Islanders tried to find a scoring punch from any of their forwards. They added another option at the trade deadline, bringing in J-G Pageau from the Senators, though he didn’t immediately click in seven games before the season was suspended. Having more time to practice in Trotz’s system during the Phase 3 training camp could benefit him as he tries to provide stability to an uneven third line.

Anders Lee
Anders LeeNHLI via Getty Images

The top line of Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle will look to keep its chemistry intact, but the reunion of the Islanders’ fourth line cannot be overlooked. Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck — the “Identity Line” — are back together after Cizikas had been sidelined in February with a leg laceration.

The Panthers certainly have more dangerous weapons up top, with left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (23 goals, 55 assists), center Aleksander Barkov (20 goals, 42 assists) and center Mike Hoffman (29 goals, 30 assists) leading the way. They were near the top of the league, averaging 3.3 goals per game (including 2.59 at even strength), while the Islanders were closer to the bottom with 2.78 goals per game (2.26 at even strength).

Edge: Panthers

Special Teams

The Panthers showed a more dangerous power play during the regular season, converting at a 21.33 percent clip, which was 10th-best unit in the league. The man-advantage allowed their skill to show off, with Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov scoring 11 power-play goals apiece.

What the Islanders lacked in power-play punch (17.26 percent) they made up for on the penalty kill, killing off 80.68 percent of penalties successfully. Having Pelech and Cizikas healthy again should only help that cause.

The Panthers’ penalty kill was not far behind at 78.49 percent, though, giving them the nod in this one.

Edge: Panthers

Coaching

Talk about a powerhouse matchup. There will be no lack of experience — especially of the playoff variety — behind the benches with Trotz squaring off against Joel Quenneville. The veteran duo have combined to coach 336 career playoff games.

After guiding the Capitals to a Stanley Cup in 2018, Trotz immediately gave the Islanders a sound structure last season and it bought them an unexpected ticket to the playoffs. He has them back at it again this season, leaning on their system over individual talent to have success.

Quenneville, meanwhile, led the Blackhawks to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015 before joining the Panthers this season and bringing them to the postseason for just the third time since 2000.

Edge: Even

Prediction

The Islanders will benefit from having Pelech back, and if he can help them slow down the Panthers’ top offensive threats, Trotz’s system should win out. Islanders in five.

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