The Islanders opened their best-of-five series against the Florida Panthers with a 2-1 win on Saturday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau put the Islanders on the board eight minutes into the game with his first playoff goal in Blue and Orange and the Isles' first official goal of the postseason. Anthony Beauvillier converted on the power-play to notch the game winner, while Semyon Varlamov made 27 saves.
The Isles held Florida's sixth-ranked offense (3.30 goals per game) to just one goal for the afternoon. Jonathan Huberdeau scored the lone goal for the Panthers, but the Isles, who finished the season with the ninth-ranked defense (2.79 goals-allowed-per-game) clamped down the rest of the way.
"I thought we did a really good job," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "Our first [period] was good. I think our bench was really good. [In the second period] we got away from it. I thought we reeled it in in the third period and were pretty solid in the third even though we gave up a goal on that first shift."
From the opening faceoff, Islanders hockey was on display. The Isles played their smothering and detailed style, as they worked Florida up and down the ice and created offense from turnovers and their transition game.
Right away, the Islanders special teams saw some action with some four-on-four play, and two power plays in the opening 7:12.
The Isles built off of the momentum from their power play and their abrasive play prevented Florida from landing a shot on goal through the first 10:42. The Isles also held the New York Rangers without a shot for a 10-minute stretch in their exhibition game on Wednesday night.
The Isles' diligence paid off. A tremendous forecheck initiated by Tom Kuhnhackl - who joined the lineup after being a healthy scratch in the Isles' exhibition game - forced a turnover to his linemate Derick Brassard - who set up the game's first goal.
From the left faceoff circle Brassard - suited up in his 100th-career playoff game and first as an Islander - snapped a pass across the crease to his hometown pal, Pageau, for a tap-in on the doorstep. With a one-goal lead the Isles didn't lay off and finished the period with an 11-9 shot on goal edge.
"It's always fun to score a goal and to get on the board," Pageau said. "It was a perfect pass by Derick and a great forecheck [by Kuhnhackl]. I thought the whole team did a really good job tonight on the forecheck, we were really physical and keeping things simple."
Frustrated by not being able to find a rhythm, the Panthers picked up their pressure to start the second period and the Isles deviated from the momentum they had constructed in the first period.
Florida's Mike Matheson laid an illegal check to the head on Johnny Boychuk 2:44 into the period. Boychuk was immediately sent to the Isles' dressing room and did not return. The Islanders played the remainder of the game with five defensemen.
The predatory penalty cost the Panthers, as the Islanders seized the opportunity and doubled their lead 2-0 on the ensuing man advantage. Devon Toews fed Beauvillier who ripped a long-range one-timer from atop the right faceoff circle through the pads of Bobrovsky, who was shielded by Brock Nelson's towering 6-foot-3 frame.
"I liked our focus on the hit when Johnny went down," Trotz said. "Our response was scoring a power-play goal. You didn't see us taking an undisciplined penalty. The best way to respond after a hit is a goal on the power play."
As Florida returned to full-strength, they amplified their pressure. Midway through the period, they regained a bulk of the possession and put the Isles on their heels. Midway through the period, the Isles were briefly down two defensemen as Ryan Pulock went to the bench with an upper-body injury, but returned after two minutes.
Florida closed out the middle frame outshooting the Isles 14-7 and a total of 23-18.
The Panthers came out blazing to start the third and scored their first goal on the first shift. Huberdeau cut their deficit down 2-1 only 23 second into the final period as he shimmied in the crease and snuck a backhanded-shot through Varlamov's pads.
The Isles responded to Florida's pressure by holding off the third period push while creating lethal chances. The Islanders outshot the Panthers 10-5 and eventually pick up the first 'W' of the series.
"It was a good response, you learn to be comfortable in a very uncomfortable situation; in a one-goal game," Trotz said. "We've handled that very well in the last two years…I liked our response. I thought we handled it pretty well with our experience in our understanding of what we are when we got that lead and how we have to play locked us in there."
SPECIAL TEAMS SUCCESS:
The Islanders special teams posted a solid showing. On the penalty kill, the Isles were a perfect 1-for-1 and were disciplined in keeping Florida's 10th-ranked power play (21.3%) off the ice. On the man advantage, the Isles power play went 1-for-3 and converted on the game-winning goal.
"When you have the opportunity on the man advantage you want to go out and capitalize," Nelson said. "Right now, with all of the scenarios we have going on, with the time off and coming back and the best-of-five, special teams is going to play a huge part of these games. We were able to get one and that was huge for us and gave us momentum. That can be a difference in a game."
The winger was a healthy scratch in the Isles exhibition game, as Ross Johnston took his place alongside Pageau and Brassard.
The former two-time Stanley Cup champion (with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017) joined the lineup to face the Panthers. Often referred to as a 'Swiss Army Knife' by Trotz, Kukhnackl's showcased his persistent forecheck and assist to the penalty kill as a left-shot.
He logged 11:33 total time on ice, including 40 seconds on the penalty kill and threw two hits.
BEAUVILLIER KEEPS BUILDING:
In the Isles' exhibition win against the Rangers, Beauvillier put the Isles on the board first as he capitalized on a two-on-one rush. On Saturday, he scored the game-winner.
The 23-year-old winger posted a career high season with his 39 points and 21 assists (18G) through 68 games and has kept that momentum going into the postseason.
Beauvillier's goal against Florida was the second in his postseason career and first on the power play.
VARLAMOV GETS THE STARTING NOD:
Varlamov played in his first postseason game with the Isles and his first start since 2014. The netminder made 27 saves against the Panthers.
All throughout the Isles' training camp leading up to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, Trotz has praised both of his goaltenders and noted that he can't go wrong with either of them.
During the regular season, Varlamov and Thomas Greiss rotated between the pipes for 33-straight games and posted similar numbers. Varlamov had a record of 19-14-6, a 2.62 GAA, and a .914 SV% and received 10 more than his counterpart in Greiss who finished the season with a record of 16-9-4, 2.74 GAA, and a .913 SV%.
In Wednesday's exhibition win, Varlamov got the start and played 40 minutes, while Greiss played the final period and let in the sole Rangers' goal.