By this time tomorrow the New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers will be battling it out during Game 1 of their Qualifying Series. The wait has felt never-ending, and for the Islanders, it's surreal to think the day has finally arrived.
The Islanders wrapped up their final pre play-in practice in Toronto as they smoothed out the details of their own game and strategized for their opponent. Cal Clutterbuck, Ryan Pulock and Head Coach Barry Trotz addressed the media afterwards.
"We had a good skate today and you could tell the energy was up and that the guys are excited for this," Pulock said. "Just being in this bubble and together all of the time I think we're going to try and make the most of it."
The Isles may have bested the Panthers 3-0-0 during the regular season, but they're not skimming over any details in their best-of-five series ahead. With star forwards in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, former two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovksy and the 10th-best power play in the NHL, the Isles are preparing for a stiff test from the Panthers.
"It's going to be tight," Pulock said of the series. "They've got some big forwards with skill that we're going to have to do a good job defensively. They have some d-men that like to get up in the play and join the rush which we're going to have to take care of. We've got to get to their goaltending. When it comes to playoff time, everything really tightens up. It's going to be a fun challenge and a fun ride."
With a fully healthy roster and having every player available to play on Saturday, as confirmed by coach Trotz, Pulock and Clutterbuck are looking forward to a stable lineup. At the time of the NHL's pause, Pulock's d-partner, Adam Pelech, and Clutterbuck's linemate, Casey Cizikas, were both on injured reserve.
"Casey and I have been together a long time," Clutterbuck said. "The team misses him when he's out of the lineup and the team missed Pelly when he was out of the lineup. It's a pretty good indication of what they bring on a daily basis whether they get recognized for it or not. Being without them - it's not to say that guys that came in didn't do a good job, they really did - but those guys are who they are. Everything from personalities to presence to the way they play, it's nice to have them back."
Clutterbuck, who has played 12 seasons in the NHL, has seen a thing or two during his time, but never circumstances like these, with a pandemic pausing the season and a quarantined playoffs. The 32-year-old made a point to applaud the league for it's diligence during these uncertain and fluid times.
"We were sitting there in March, April and most of May watching the time slip away," Clutterbuck said. "It started to get nice outside and you really wondered how a league would be able to pull something off. You've got to give the players' association and the league a lot of credit. What they've been able to create here is nothing short of incredible."
With one more sleep left before the moment that's been months in the making officially begins, Trotz noted his confidence in his team and their abilities to execute their identity against the Panthers.
"They've been working towards this moment for the last few months really knowing we were going to get back into it," Trotz said. "We've put ourselves in as good of a place as we can to be our best and hopefully, our best is good enough."
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