Good morning and welcome to “Cats & Coffee,” a weekly segment in which we get you caffeinated with an exciting look at the week ahead for the Florida Panthers.
It’ll be a matchup of two teams hoping to overcome more than four decades of combined postseason futility when the Florida Panthers faceoff against the New York Islanders in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since their historic run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, while the Islanders drought dates back to 1993 – a year before Florida’s inaugural NHL season.
“It’s going to be a battle in the first series,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “Sure we finished in first in our division and we’re going to be the home team, but no matter who you play now in the playoffs it’s going to be a battle and you’ve got to play your best hockey to win.
“Hopefully we’ll get pretty close to healthy and that’ll be good for our team. Overall, if we’re playing well, I think we can beat anybody and anybody can beat us.”
The Panthers (47-26-9) will hold home-ice advantage throughout the series by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division – their second division title in franchise history and first since 2011-12.
Florida is 2-1-0 against the Islanders this season, with a 5-1 victory at the Barclays Center on Dec. 15 serving as the catalyst for the franchise-record 12-game winning streak that helped propel the Panthers into contention midway through the season.
“It’ll be a little bit harder,” forward Jussi Jokinen said of the team’s impending postseason matchup. “It’s the same thing when you go from preseason to regular season; the same thing when you go from regular season to playoffs. It’ll be a little bit harder, a little more speed, a little bit more physical. But, still, our young players have to play their game. They have the confidence to make plays and play the same way they’ve been playing the whole season.”
The Islanders (45-27-10) have clinched a postseason berth in three of the past four seasons, but shouldn’t count on the upstart Panthers to suffer from any growing pains in the first-ever meeting between the two clubs in the playoffs.
“I’ve been here a long time. I know when you have a chance to win or not,” said Jokinen, who has 48 games of playoff experience. “This team has a chance to go all the way if everything goes like it’s meant to be. Hopefully we can have a long summer and we can play well.”
Here’s what you need to know for the week ahead…
GAME 1 – Thursday, April 14, 8:00 p.m. – NY Islanders at Florida
(TV: FS Florida, CNBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
GAME 2 – Friday, April 15, 7:30 p.m. – NY Islanders at Florida (TV: FS Florida, NHL Network, Sportsnet 360, TVA Sports)
GAME 3 – Sunday, April 17, 8:00 p.m. – Florida at NY Islanders
Individual game tickets for the Panthers home games during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs are on sale now. For ticket information please call (954) 835-PUCK (7825) or visit FloridaPanthers.com/Playoffs.
KEEP AN EYE ON
He’s Just Being Reilly
The Panthers finished the regular season with four 25-goal scorers for the first time in franchise history after Reilly Smith scored into an empty net with 5.5 seconds left in Saturday’s 5-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I’m happy about it,” said Smith, who joined Aleksander Barkov, Jaromir Jagr and Vincent Trocheck as the only Panthers to reach the 25-goal mark this season. “It took five seconds left in the season and no goalie in net to get it, but I’ll keep it. It feels good. Can’t give enough credit to my linemates this year. They’ve been awesome. They’ve been feeding me a ton.”
As one of only three forwards within Florida’s top-six to have competed in the playoffs previously, it’s a safe bet that Smith will be attacking the net fervently against the Islanders this week as he looks to not only put the Panthers out in front early, but also set the scoring pace for some his more inexperienced teammates.
“When you get out to a three or four nothing lead in this league it definitely makes it a lot easier (to win),” Smith said.
Smith, 25, had four goals and an assist in 12 postseason games with the Boston Bruins in 2014.
Barkov’s Big Debut
Although the Panthers will have several players making their postseason debuts this week, none enter the playoffs with as much momentum or intrigue as Aleksander Barkov.
The 20-year-old center had five goals and eight assists during his career-high nine-game point streak to close out the regular season, finishing his third NHL campaign with a career-high 28 goals and 59 points in 66 games.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2013 has long drawn comparisons to top centers around the league such as Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, but it was former Panther Sean Bergenheim that first likened Barkov to Islanders captain John Tavares.
Bergenheim, who played alongside Barkov in 2013-14, began his career with the Islanders and his fifth season with the team happened to be the rookie season of Tavares, whom New York selected with the first pick of the 2009 draft.
"With Tavares, you could see he had that in him," Bergenheim said of Barkov in January of 2014. "You could see that he had the tools to become one of the best players in the League. But also there you saw that he needed to get adjusted to the NHL one or two years.
“With Barkov, too, you can just sit in here and wonder what he's going to be in three years. He's so good right now that that improvement that Tavares has made in his game, definitely I see that Barkov has the tools for that."
As the Islanders and Panthers prepare for their opening round matchup, and more than two years after Bergenheim’s prophetic comments were made, the battle between Barkov and Tavares could inevitably be the deciding factor in determining which team will advance.