SUNRISE, Fla. -- The blank stares on the faces of the New York Islanders after losing Game 7 to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference First Round last year said it all.
It was the first time in 13 years the Islanders had a team on the brink of elimination, when they lost Game 7 of the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2002.
Not since 1993 have the Islanders advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they will try to end the hex when they open their series with the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; MSG+, FS-F, CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2).
"It's hard to win a series," Islanders captain John Tavares said Wednesday, shortly before boarding a flight to Florida. "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."
Video: Chatting with Tavares about his team's preparations
This is the third time in four seasons the Islanders have qualified for the playoffs after they wrapped up a second straight season of reaching 100 points. Coach Jack Capuano, who could have defenseman Travis Hamonic in the lineup Thursday for the first time since he sustained a lower-body injury March 31, believes his players are ready for the challenge against the Atlantic Division champions.
"It was a good couple days," Capuano said. "I just think we had some good meetings and I think the guys are ready. You work this hard all summer long and through training camp to get to the postseason, and this is their time now.
"For me, [I] feel good for those guys. Three out of four years [in the playoffs], especially back-to-back 100-point seasons the last couple years. But I think the guys know how good they are, but at the same time even when we got hit with some injuries, the guys that came in played hard and played well and they competed hard. That's all we're asking our guys here to do. Hopefully our goaltending plays well, special teams stays with it and we give ourselves a chance here in this series."
Hamonic, who appeared to injure his right knee in a collision with Columbus Blue Jackets forward Scott Hartnell on March 31, practiced again Wednesday and remains hopeful for Game 1. Hamonic missed the entire postseason in 2015 after spraining his MCL in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
"He had a good practice the last couple days," Capuano said. "I'll talk to Travis on the plane. I'll talk to him tonight and get a feel of where he's at, talk to the doctors. I just want to make sure that he's 100 percent. I'd never put him in a situation that he could hurt himself. But just talking to him out there, he said he felt pretty good. That's a conversation I'll have with him later today."
With No. 1 goaltender Jaroslav Halak out for the opening round, the Islanders will need a healthy defensive group to support Thomas Greiss, who is expected to start Thursday. They'll need to be consistent in each end of the ice and draw on the experiences gained in their first-round series loss last year and in 2013, when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
"You can always learn, win or lose," Capuano said. "We went through a lot of long meetings after Game 7 in Washington to try and just put a finger on what happened in that particular game. I think what they can do is just compete, just be themselves and not worry about what they can't control.
"I think there's a lot of distractions at this time of year. I think if we just worry about what we have to do, and as an individual what you have to do, that's the most important thing. If you play the way that you're supposed to play, it's going to help our hockey team. That's the focus, that's what we're concentrating on right now, and we have to make sure we [pay] attention to detail and do the right things against a high-powered offensive team like Florida."
Video: NHL.com First Round Preview: Panthers vs Islanders
The Islanders won Game 1 in Washington last year and held a two-goal lead in Game 2 they couldn't protect in a 4-3 loss. Tavares realizes the importance of beginning on the right foot.
"I think in any series, you want to get off to a good start," Tavares said. "Game 1 can sometimes start out a little slow, or be a little feeling-out process. Obviously, we want to have a good start, and I'm sure they do too. They have some veteran guys as well that's obviously going to help them along. We have a good understanding of what brings us success and we want to start that off on the first shift. We started off the series last year very well, it's just about being consistent throughout it.
"I think we're just a little more comfortable understanding what playoff hockey is all about. The attention to detail, the focus, the preparation, and obviously once you get into the games, how competitive they are, how intense they are and how to handle the swings of a series."