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Stanley Cup Qualifiers preview: Islanders vs. Panthers

New York's defensive play key against Florida's deep offensive attack

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

The Stanley Cup Qualifiers will use eight best-of-5 series and two four-team round-robins to determine the field and seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. will preview each series and round-robin prior to the start of the Qualifiers on Saturday.

Today, the qualifier series between the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers.


No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers

Islanders: 35-23-10, .588 points percentage

Panthers: 35-26-8, .565 points percentage

Season series: NYI 3-0-0; FLA 0-2-1

The New York Islanders and Florida Panthers will play against each other in the postseason for the second time in four years in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

New York won all three games against Florida during the regular season, but Game 1 of the best-of-5 series will be the first time the Islanders and Panthers have played each other since New York's 3-1 win at BB&T Center on Dec. 12, 2019. The Islanders went 6-8-5 in 19 games after the break for the 2020 NHL All-Star Game before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

"The team that's going to win the Stanley Cup is the one that's going to adapt the quickest, the one that's going to play a good system the quickest and they're going to have their game the quickest," Islanders forward Jordan Eberle said. "At the end of the day you're playing for a Stanley Cup. It doesn't matter how you win it."

The Panthers are hoping to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016, when they lost to the Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round. They showed signs of ending the playoff drought during the first half of the season under coach Joel Quenneville and had a six-game winning streak leading into the All-Star break, but went 6-9-3 in their final 18 games before the season pause.

Quenneville, who won the Stanley Cup three times as coach of the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015), said he's hopeful his playoff experience, along with other newcomers such as forwards Brett Connolly and Brian Boyle, could be beneficial during the 24-team tournament.

"As you go through the process of trying to win a Cup, guys that have been around know what to say and know what to expect," Quenneville said. "Sometimes that can be shared. … Let's hope that these guys can share those memories and experiences and help one another."


Game breakers

Islanders: Mathew Barzal is New York's most dangerous offensive player and the center led the Islanders during the regular season with 60 points (19 goals, 41 assists) in 68 games. Four of those points (two goals, two assists) were scored in three games against the Panthers. In his first NHL postseason experience last season, Barzal was second on the Islanders with seven points (two goals, five assists) in eight games, behind Eberle (nine points). Barzal scored at least one point in six of eight games, including a four-game point streak in New York's first-round sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Panthers: Aleksander Barkov has evolved into one of the League's top two-way centers, and Quenneville likely will do his best to have Barkov on the ice against Barzal as much as possible. Barkov scored 62 points (20 goals, 42 assists) in 68 games, second on the Panthers to Jonathan Huberdeau (78 points). But Barkov did not have a point in the last six games before the season pause, a trend that will need to change if the Panthers hope to advance to the playoffs.

Video: FLA@ANA: Barkov taps in pass from Huberdeau



Islanders: Semyon Varlamov likely will start Game 1, but he and Thomas Greiss alternated the first 33 starts of the season, and coach Barry Trotz said he's more likely to make lineup changes in a short series if necessary. Varlamov, who signed a four-year, $20 million contract ($5 million average annual value) with the Islanders on July 1, 2019, hasn't played a postseason game since 2014, when he went 3-4 in seven games with the Colorado Avalanche. Greiss, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, had a .944 save percentage in six games during the first round against the Panthers in 2016.

Panthers: Sergei Bobrovsky struggled in his first season with Florida after signing a seven-year contract on July 1, 2019. His 3.23 goals-against average was the highest of his 10 NHL seasons, and his .900 save percentage was his lowest since 2011-12 (.899). But Bobrovsky, who helped the Columbus Blue Jackets stun the Tampa Bay Lightning in a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference First Round last season, is Florida's clear-cut No.1 goalie, and Quenneville said he looked sharp during training camp. Bobrovsky will be backed up by Chris Driedger, who has 15 games of NHL experience and went 2-0-1 with a .955 save percentage in his final three games before the pause.


Numbers to know

Islanders: New York has 11 players on its roster from the 2015-16 team that eliminated Florida in the Eastern Conference First Round: forwards Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Anders Lee, Matt Martin and Brock Nelson, defensemen Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Nick Leddy and Ryan Pulock, and goalie Greiss. Lee did not play in that series because of a broken leg.

Panthers: Florida had five players score at least 20 goals (forwards Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Barkov and Noel Acciari), a big reason why the Panthers were sixth in the League with 3.30 goals per game and 10th in the League on the power play at 21.3 percent. Hoffman and Dadonov tied for the Panthers lead with 11 goals on the man-advantage, and Huberdeau led Florida with 29 power-play points. He was one of four Florida players to score at least 20 points on the power play (defenseman Keith Yandle, Hoffman, Barkov); no Islanders player scored more than 12 points on the man-advantage (Barzal).



Islanders: Jean-Gabriel Pageau played a huge role in the Ottawa Senators' run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final when the center scored 10 points (eight goals, two assists) in 19 games. Pageau, who was traded to New York on Feb. 24, scored an NHL career-high 26 goals this season and provides another option on the power play, which was 24th in the League at 17.3 percent.

Panthers: Frank Vatrano is expected to play in all situations, and the forward is not afraid of getting gritty, evidenced by his 102 hits, second on Florida, and his 43 blocked shots. Vatrano was third among Panthers forwards with 86:36 of shorthanded ice time and two of his 16 goals were scored shorthanded. Vatrano was seeing time on Florida's top line with Barkov and Dadonov before the pause and likely will start the series there.

Video: NYI@STL: Pageau nets Barzal one-timer for PPG


They said it

"They're a team that's extremely skilled. Obviously up front with guys like (Aleksander) Barkov and (Jonathan) Huberdeau, but also on the back end and they have great goaltending, so I think against them we just need to find a way to get back to our style of hockey, which is really hard-nosed, defensive hockey, and try to play along their end, get on the forecheck. Casey's (Cizikas) line does a great job of that, so I think hopefully throughout camp here we kind of get back to our identity and the way that we like to play." -- Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech

"It's those games you want to play, win the series and keep moving forward. It's a lot of fun and you get really closer with each other in the group. That feeling is really good. I think we have a good team [and] have a great chance to do something good. I'm really excited." -- Panthers forward Lucas Wallmark


Will win if …

Islanders: They can play to their identity and shut down the Panthers' top offensive players, much like they did against the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs last season. New York will receive huge boosts from the returns of Pelech, who last played Dec. 31 because of an Achilles injury sustained before a game against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 2, and center Casey Cizikas, who missed the last 13 games before the pause because of a lacerated leg.

Panthers: They receive the type of goaltending they expected when they signed Bobrovsky, who is 16-10-0 with a .928 save percentage in 27 games against the Islanders. If Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner (2013, 2017), can build on the postseason success he had with the Blue Jackets in 2019, the Panthers' chance of advancing increases exponentially.


Islanders projected lineup

Anders Lee -- Mathew Barzal -- Jordan Eberle 

Anthony Beauvillier -- Brock Nelson -- Josh Bailey

Ross Johnston -- Jean-Gabriel Pageau -- Derick Brassard

Matt Martin -- Casey Cizikas -- Cal Clutterbuck

Adam Pelech -- Ryan Pulock

Devon Toews -- Scott Mayfield

Nick Leddy -- Johnny Boychuk

Semyon Varlamov

Thomas Greiss

Scratched: Michael Dal Colle, Otto Koivula, Tom Kuhnhackl, Leo Komarov, Andrew Ladd, Sebastian Aho, Noah Dobson, Andy Greene, Christopher Gibson

Unfit to play: None


Panthers projected lineup

Frank Vatrano -- Aleksander Barkov -- Evgenii Dadonov

Jonathan Huberdeau -- Erik Haula -- Mike Hoffman

Lucas Wallmark -- Brian Boyle -- Brett Connolly

Colton Sceviour -- Noel Acciari -- Mark Pysyk

MacKenzie Weegar -- Aaron Ekblad

Keith Yandle -- Mike Matheson

Riley Stillman -- Anton Stralman

Sergei Bobrovsky

Chris Driedger

Scratched: Dryden Hunt, Eetu Luostarinen, Aleksi Saarela, Owen Tippett, Dominic Toninato, Josh Brown, Brady Keeper, Chase Priskie, Philippe Desrosiers, Sam Montembeault

Unfit to play: None

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