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Islanders vs. Panthers First Round series preview

by Alain Poupart and Brian Compton / Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers have been one of the most surprising and exciting teams in the NHL this season. Led by Jaromir Jagr and using Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey as a focal point, Florida won the second division title in franchise history and is back in the playoffs for the first time in four years. A team that hasn't won a playoff series since 1995-96 is suddenly a serious Stanley Cup contender.

The New York Islanders, led by 33-goal scorer John Tavares, are trying to end a long postseason drought of their own. They are in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, but haven't won a series since 1993. Something has to give in this one.

There are some historical ties between the two franchises. Florida starting goalie Roberto Luongo was picked by the Islanders in the first round (No. 4) of the 1997 NHL Draft and played 24 games with them in 1999-2000 before being traded to the Panthers. The last time the Islanders won a playoff round, they did so against Jagr and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1993 Patrick Division Final. The ties extend off the ice: Defenseman and Hall of Fame member Denis Potvin, a cornerstone of the Islanders' dynasty in the 1980s, is a TV analyst with the Panthers.

The Panthers won two of the three games against the Islanders this season.

FORWARDS

Panthers: The top line of Jagr, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau has been productive since Jagr joined Florida in a trade with the New Jersey Devils in February 2015, but the Panthers found some complementary scoring up front this season.

For the first time in franchise history, the Panthers had six players reach the 50-point mark (they had never had more than four) and had four players with 25 or more goals for the first time in franchise history.

The Jagr-Barkov-Huberdeau line has dominated games with its ability to control the puck, combined with some creative passing.

The trio of Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen was the most productive line at various points in the season and is the team's fastest. But Trocheck is a question mark for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs because of a foot injury he sustained March 29 when blocking a shot. Nick Bjugstad ended the season centering the line in Trocheck's place and picked up his offensive production after what had been a disappointing season.

To help their forward depth, the Panthers acquired Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell in separate trades before the NHL Trade Deadline. The two veterans, who finished the season skating with American Hockey League call-up Rocco Grimaldi after Bjugstad was moved to the second line, bring plenty of playoff experience.

The key player on the fourth line is center Derek MacKenzie, part of the first penalty-killing unit up front with Smith. MacKenzie dealt with a foot injury, also sustained while blocking a shot, in the final weeks of the regular season. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Shawn Thornton brings a physical element in addition to his playoff experience.

Islanders: New York's offense hasn't been as dynamic as it was last season, but it has been efficient. Four players scored at least 20 goals, helping John Tavares carry an attack that still lacks a star wing to skate alongside the captain.

New York entered the season expecting big things from second-year forward Ryan Strome, who had 50 points as a rookie. But Strome struggled so mightily early that he was sent to Bridgeport of the American Hockey League in November. It was brief stay, but things haven't gotten all that much better; Strome has one goal and four assists since March 1.

Brock Nelson has performed well in spurts and finished with 26 goals. Kyle Okposo, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, hasn't spent much time with Tavares but has still managed to get more than 60 points. Frans Nielsen, the Islanders' best two-way forward who can also hit the market in July, reached 50 points for the second time in his career.

It appears the Islanders will be without Mikhail Grabovski for the start of the playoffs; he has been out since March 15 because of an upper-body injury. Nikolay Kulemin has been solid defensively but scored only nine goals.

Josh Bailey, the Islanders' first-round pick in 2008, was unable to get 40 points in back-to-back seasons and had his lowest output (32) in a full season since he had 32 in 80 games in 2011-12.

The Islanders' fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck was unquestionably their most consistent throughout the season. Clutterbuck scored 15 goals, including five game-winners. Cizikas had a career-high 28 points and Martin scored a career-high 10 goals, evidence the three are capable of more than simply setting the tone physically.

DEFENSEMEN

Panthers: Aaron Ekblad, the first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and last season's Calder Trophy winner, was reunited with Brian Campbell on the top pair toward the end of the regular season, and the two picked up where they left off last season.

Ekblad and Campbell are offensive-minded defensemen with puck-moving ability, and Ekblad's knack for getting his shot on net makes him valuable on the power play.

Longtime Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jakub Kindl was acquired before the NHL Trade Deadline, and his role increased in the latter stages of the season. He's another smooth skater who will join the rush, as is 2009 first-round pick Dmitry Kulikov, the longest-tenured member of the Panthers.

Erik Gudbranson, who dealt with injuries during the season, brings a physical presence on the back end. Gudbranson missed most of the last two months because of a concussion and a foot injury, and his health was a concern at the end of the regular season.

Rounding out the blue line is Alex Petrovic, another physical player, and smooth-skating Steven Kampfer.

Captain Willie Mitchell didn't play in the second half of the season after being sidelined by a concussion, although he started practicing with the team in the final weeks as he contemplated whether to retire or return to action.

Islanders: New York could begin the playoffs without arguably its top defenseman again; Travis Hamonic, who missed the Islanders' seven-game series loss against the Washington Capitals a year ago, sustained a lower-body injury on March 31 and was to be re-evaluated after the regular season. Hamonic plays in all situations and was the Islanders' leader in ice time (23:49 per game) at the time of the injury.

Hamonic's injury puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the rest of the group, particularly the top pairing of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. Leddy, who quarterbacks the first power-play unit, set a career-high for assists this season. Boychuk's big slap shot is a valuable weapon.

Calvin de Haan was perhaps New York's most underrated defenseman this season. He's not flashy, but he's steady, can execute the first pass out of the defensive zone and was among the NHL's top shot-blockers.

It will be interesting to see if the Islanders are ready to give Ryan Pulock, their top pick in 2013, legitimate playing time this postseason. Pulock has a slap shot that has been clocked in excess of 100 miles per hour and spent the early portion of the season honing his defensive end of the game in the AHL.

Thomas Hickey has been a mainstay on the third pairing for the past three seasons. Hickey doesn't bring a lot of size and physical play, but his hockey sense makes up for it. Brian Strait, Marek Zidlicky and Scott Mayfield round out Capuano's options on the blue line.

GOALTENDERS

Panthers: Luongo's decision to approve a trade back to Florida in March 2014 paid off with his first playoff appearance in seven full seasons with the Panthers.

Luongo, who turned 37 on April 4, made his fifth All-Star Game appearance this season and remained an upper-echelon goalie capable of stealing games. He is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, when he was with the Vancouver Canucks and was replaced as starter by Cory Schneider halfway through a first-round series loss for the second consecutive year.

Luongo led the Canucks to the Final in 2011, when he had four shutouts in 25 playoff games.

Backup Al Montoya rebounded from a subpar 2014-15 season with an impressive showing that saw him post save percentage and goals-against average numbers comparable to Luongo's.

Islanders: Not only is New York missing a top defenseman, it will also begin the playoffs without No. 1 goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who sustained a lower-body injury on March 8, The Islanders said the following day he would miss at least six weeks. It's unlikely Halak will be back before the conclusion of the first round.

But Thomas Greiss has been solid all season long, and was arguably their most valuable player during the first half. He's set career-highs in games played and wins, but has appeared in one playoff game in his NHL career.

Rookie Jean-Francois Berube, claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings prior to the start of the season, is expected to back up Greiss.

COACHES

Panthers: In his second season, Gerard Gallant helped his team overcome a series of injuries -- including four players sidelined after blocking shots -- to become a strong candidate for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

Gallant, whose first coaching stint spanned three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, will make his first playoff appearance as an NHL coach. Gallant guided Saint John to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship in 2011 and 2012.

One of Gallant's players in Saint John was Huberdeau, one of several young Panthers who have blossomed under Gallant's tutelage, along with Barkov and Trocheck.

Gallant was known as a feisty player during his 11-year NHL playing career, but an even-keel, calm approach has served him well behind the bench in Florida.



Islanders
: Jack Capuano has won more than 200 games since becoming New York's coach in November 2010, but he must find a way to guide the franchise to its first playoff series victory since 1993.

Considered a players' coach, Capuano took an unexpected approach in the final week of the regular season when he called out individual players; Bailey, Nelson and Strome. The Islanders responded with a string of solid performances.

The Islanders were hit by the injury bug down the stretch, but this is a huge postseason for Capuano; this is a franchise that hasn't played in the second round in 23 years, and a trip there this spring might be vital for Capuano's job security.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Panthers: Florida didn't make the playoffs because of its power play or penalty kill, each of which rank in the bottom third in the NHL.

The Panthers ended a 28-game streak of failing to score more than one power-play goal in its victory against the Montreal Canadiens on April 5 when Bjugstad and Hudler beat goalie Mike Condon.

The Panthers don't have a player with a big shot from the point, although Ekblad is adept at putting the puck on net. Barkov is the leading scorer with the man advantage.

The penalty-killing has been hurt by the injuries to Gudbranson and MacKenzie, who are part of the first unit along with Kulikov and Smith.

Islanders: The power play performed well in spurts during the regular season and finished in the middle of the pack, but it will need to capitalize when it has chances in the playoffs. Perhaps this is where Pulock could prove to be most effective, and the coaching staff may have to consider placing him on the top unit. Someone up front will have to step up in the absence of forward Anders Lee, who is out indefinitely after breaking his fibula in the final week of the regular season. It is imperative the Islanders fill that role, which consists of getting to the net, screening goaltenders and redirecting slap shots from the likes of Pulock and Boychuk.

The penalty kill was a pleasant surprise, improving from 26th in the League last season to fourth (84.5 percent). With the expectation that Halak won't be ready for the start of the playoffs, the pressure on the Islanders' ability to kill penalties will be magnified.

SERIES CHANGERS

Panthers: Aleksander Barkov, forward -- The center has been a solid two-way player since he joined the Panthers in 2013-14, but his offensive production took off this season.

Despite missing 16 games because of a concussion, Barkov ended up leading the Panthers in goals (28) and was tied for fourth in the League with eight game-winners.

In addition to being a superb passer, Barkov uses his big frame to control the puck in the offensive zone and gain position in front of the net. On the defensive end, Barkov consistently breaks up opponents' plays.

Barkov plays in all situations for the Panthers. He centers the top line and is a regular member of the power-play and penalty-killing units.

Islanders: John Tavares, forward -- New York's captain had another 30-goal season, but he played in a higher gear during the final two weeks of the regular season. That will need to carry over into the playoffs, where Tavares may have to take it upon himself to find a way to get New York into the second round. If Tavares continues to stay hot, the Islanders' chances of advancing increase dramatically.

WILL WIN IF ...

Panthers: They get better production from their special teams than they did during the regular season.

The Panthers have all the ingredients necessary to make a deep playoff run, but they have to find a way to be more efficient on the power play and killing penalties.

In terms of killing penalties, having MacKenzie and Gudbranson at full strength would be a big boost. Likewise, the power play would greatly benefit from a quick return by Trocheck.

Islanders: Postseason hockey always revolves around goaltending, and this series won't be any different. It's something Greiss has never really experienced before, but if he can show he's up to the task and the Islanders can continue to find ways to score, they will reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

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