After a four-and-a-half month pause, the NHL is back!
And not just back, but heading right into the postseason.
The Isles and Panthers are going from 0-60 when the puck drops for Game 1 on Saturday. And in a modified, best-of-five series, stalling out at the start could spell the end of the season. Whoever finds their rhythm first will likely advance to the playoffs.
"For us and probably for them, it's who can stay the course and play their game more efficiently and for longer," Cal Clutterbuck said on Friday.
Clutterbuck said no team was going to "out-prepare" the Islanders during Training Camp and the Isles certainly looked like their old selves in stifling the Rangers for a 2-1 win in Wednesday's exhibition contest. They'll look to apply that same defensive structure against a Panthers team that finished sixth in the NHL in goals-per-game, but was blanked 5-0 on Wednesday.
"I liked a lot of things in our game," Head Coach Barry Trotz said on Friday. "We tried to tighten up a couple of things the last day here. For a first outing, I thought we were getting to our identity. We didn't deviate a whole lot and that's what your identity is. You don't change. You keep plowing through and pushing your identity. That's our goal and I think that's everyone's goal, get to your game quicker than the other team."
It may be August, they may be in a neutral - and hermetically sealed - site and the forecast may call for 81 degrees in Toronto, but Saturday's game still has that playoff feel and the Isles are excited to kick off the play-in round.
"It does feel like we have a playoff game tomorrow," Clutterbuck said. "Just given the last eight weeks, starting with the beginning of Phase 2 and being able to work out in small groups, it's been a lot of practice and a long time coming. Honestly I don't think you have to search very far for motivation… It's an opportunity you don't get all the time. There is going to be no lack of motivation."
Both the Islanders and Panthers have healthy rosters and all players available, according to Trotz and Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville.
Trotz did not reveal his starting goalie for Saturday's game. Semyon Varlamov started in Wednesday's exhibition win over the Rangers and stopped all 19 shots he faced in 40 minutes of action. Thomas Greiss stopped seven-of-eight shots in the third period.
The Islanders are in capable hands either way, as both goalies posted similar numbers this season and both have sterling career stats against the Panthers.
Trotz used 12 forwards and eight defensemen in Wednesday's win, and said postgame he's settled on his forward group, while still evaluating his defense. That means Ross Johnston is likely to start on left wing with JG Pageau and Derick Brassard, a position Trotz tried six wingers in throughout training camp.
On defense, Adam Pelech said he felt no ill effects from his Achilles tendon injury during Wednesday's contest vs the Rangers. Pelech is one of three Islanders - alongside Casey Cizikas and Johnny Boychuk - who finished the season on injured reserve, but are healthy and raring to go for Game 1.
For the Panthers, defensemen Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar are expected to be in the lineup for Game 1 on Saturday. Both blueliners sat out Wednesday's 5-0 exhibition loss to Tampa Bay.
Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to start in goal for the Panthers. Bobrovsky had an uncharacteristic first year in Florida, posting a 3.23 GAA and a .900 SV% on the season, but posted solid numbers - a 2.05 GAA and a .938 SV% - in a pair of losses to the Islanders.
TALE OF THE TAPE:
A few extra numbers ahead of Saturday's Game 1:
3-0-0 - The Isles record against the Panthers this season. The Isles have won four straight games vs Florida dating back to the 2018-19 season.
1.33 goals-allowed-per-game. The Islanders allowed 1.33 goals-per-game to the Panthers this season, surrendering four total goals in three games. The 1.33 goals-per-game was the fewest the Panthers averaged against any team in 2019-20.
4 - Different venues the Islanders and Panthers will play in this season: Nassau Coliseum (Oct. 12), Barclays Center (Nov. 9), BB&T Center (Dec. 12) and Scotiabank Arena (Aug. 1)
4 - Points for Mathew Barzal vs Florida. Barzal led the Isles with two goals and two assists vs the Cats.