8 P.M., BB&T CENTER, SUNRISE, FLA. MSG+, CNBC, WFAN 101.9 FM 660AM, WBCS 880AM
1. STARTING ON THE ROAD:
The New York Islanders will have to win at least one game in Sunrise, Fla. if they want to beat the Florida Panthers in round one. It won’t be easy, as the Panthers are 25-11-5 at home this season. Between surprise visits from Kevin Spacey and toy rats being thrown on the ice, BB&T Center has shown it can get rowdy.
“In any series you want to get off to a good start,” John Tavares said. “Game 1 can start out slow or be a little feeling out process. Obviously we want to get off to a good start and they want to too. We started off the last series really well and it’s just about being consistent throughout it.”
2. HAMONIC MAY PLAY:
Travis Hamonic practiced fully with the Islanders on Tuesday and Wednesday and if he feels good, will play in Game 1, according to Jack Capuano. The coach wants to make sure his minutes-crunching defenseman is 100% before putting him back in the lineup, but Hamonic said he feels fine.
Hamonic – who was injured against the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 31 – is the Islanders’ icetime leader, averaging 23:49 per game. The Islanders were 24-6-6 this season when Hamonic led them in icetime.
3. GREISS VS. LUONGO, BACKUP TBD:
Thomas Greiss will start Game 1 for the Islanders, as the German goalie makes his first playoff start. Greiss had a career year for the Islanders, setting new highs in wins (23) and games played (41) while finishing third in the NHL with a .925 save percentage. The 30-year-old has been the Islanders’ starter since Jaroslav Halak went down with a lower-body injury and has handled the workload well, posting a four-game winning streak to end the season.
It’s unclear who Greiss’ backup will be on Thursday night. JF Berube is still working back from a lower-body injury. Berube did skate with the team on Tuesday and Wednesday and Capuano said he was close to returning. If he isn’t well enough to back up Greiss, then rookie Christopher Gibson – who picked up his first win last Tuesday against Washington – will be on the bench.
The Panthers will start Roberto Luongo in net on Thursday. The 37-year-old goalie is enjoying a resurgence in his second tour with the Panthers, going 35-19-6, his most wins since the 2010-11 season. Luongo went 2-1-0 against the Islanders this season, including a very sharp 33-save performance in December.
4. JAROMIR JAGR:
Part of the Islanders’ game plan is containing Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers leading scorer. Jagr is an ageless wonder, still producing at 44 years old.
“Someone asked me the other day, how do you stop him. Well it’s been 20-plus years and no one has figured it out,” Matt Martin said. “We have to limit his time and space and be hard on him and hope that we can wear him down in a seven-game series.”
Jagr is afforded certain respects in the NHL, like not getting facewashed after a whistle, or hacked behind the knee, but the Islanders insist they have to still play him tough between the whistles. It’s easier said than done, as the 6-foot-3, 230-pound winger isn’t easy to knock off the puck, let alone on his backside.
“He’s a big guy. I don’t think people fully understand how hard he is to move,” Cal Clutterbuck said. “It’s one of those things where he’s not flying around the ice, he’s very calculated in the way he moves. He does things very methodically. He’s great at shielding the puck and a lot of it has to do with his awareness for where guys are on the ice. He knows where the pressure is coming from and it lends itself to him not getting hit very often. It’s a combination of things, but his size plays a huge factor into it.”
5. EXPERIENCE FACTOR:
Jagr has 202 playoff games under his belt, but five of the Panthers’ top eight scorers – Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trochek – have never played in the postseason. There’s definitely a learning curve, so the Islanders hope to exploit that potential advantage, as nearly every Islander has played in a playoff series.
“They have a young team over there that’s probably going to be amped up,” Kyle Okposo said. “We’re going to try to take advantage of some of their nerves and try to jump out to an early lead.”
The Islanders are also banking on being another year older, another year smarter and feel they now know what it really takes to win in the postseason.
"It's hard to win a series," Tavares said. "You [need] four wins, beat a team four times. I think we learned last series, obviously going to the seventh game, we had an opportunity to move on, [we learned] how hard that is to close a team out. I think we have a better sense of what that's going to take."