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Panthers Ready to 'Seize Opportunity' in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Qualifiers

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

The Florida Panthers have been waiting this day for a long time.

No, I'm not talking about the 145 days that have passed since they last tasted victory with a 2-1 win in St. Louis on March 9 - their final game before the NHL paused its regular season due to rising concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

What I'm referring to is the roughly four years that have passed since they last touched the ice during the postseason. And, as fate should have it, their long-waited return offers a chance at redemption against a foe they are familiar with.

In a rematch from the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in 2016 - a series they lost in six games -- the Panthers will kick off a best-of-five series against the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.

"Now it's just focusing on games," Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said after Friday's practice in Toronto. "We had a good pace today. As soon as it was over, it was that feeling of excitement that you're ready to go and ready to go play."

Video: Panthers Ready for Qualifiers

While 11 players remain with the Islanders from 2016, subsequent seasons of finishing outside of the playoffs has led to just four being left with the Panthers: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson.

For that core group, the aura of unfinished business is palpable.

"I'm really excited to play here in the playoffs against the Islanders," said Ekblad, who posted a career-high 41 points (five goals, 36 assists) during the regular season.

"It's really exciting. It's something we've been dreaming of for a long time. We're finally here and we want to seize this opportunity."

With both Ekblad and his defensive partner, MacKenzie Weegar, out of the lineup, the Panthers suffered a 5-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition on Wednesday - the team's only tune-up before the postseason.

Heading into their series against the Islanders, however, Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said both halves of the team's top-defensive pairing -- as well as the rest of starting lineup -- are feeling great and have been cleared to play.

"We look like we're all good to go," said Quenneville, who led the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015. "Everybody's cleared."

Facing the Islanders for the first time since Dec. 12, 2019, the Panthers came up just a bit short during all three of their head-to-head matchups against New York during the regular season, with two of those three losses coming by just a goal.

In a battle between Florida's sixth-ranked offense (3.30 goals per game) and New York's ninth-ranked defense (2.79 goals allowed per game), Quenneville said he expects the series to be just as tight as it was during the regular season.

"We know we've got to play patient," Quenneville said. "We've got to play a smart game. I think [during those three regular season games] we probably felt that we had the play… The one thing they do -- and they're smart -- is that they don't give up much. We've got to make sure that we don't want to outscore them."

While neither team had a second half worth remembering, the Panthers, who went 6-9-3 in their final 18 games before the pause, did end things on a high note, going 2-0-1 while surrendering just three total goals over their final three games.

The Islanders, meanwhile, entered the pause on a seven-game losing streak.

"We're playing a team that plays hard and is well coached," said Panthers forward Brett Connolly, who played under Islanders head coach Barry Trotz during Washington's run to the Stanley Cup in 2018. "We're going to need everybody playing their best and playing hard and playing for each other, getting some good performances out of each guy individually and collectively."

In terms of individuals, Huberdeau led the Panthers in scoring and ranked 10th in the league with 78 points (23 goals, 55 assists) during the regular season. Not far behind, Barkov finished second on the team with 62 points (20 goals, 42 assists).

For the Islanders, Mathew Barzal tallied a team-leading 60 points (19 goals, 41 assists) during the regular season, including a pair of goals against Florida. Brock Nelson ended up second on the team with 54 points, including 26 goals.

"They're a team that's extremely skilled," Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech told NHL.com when asked about the Panthers. "Obviously up front with guys like Barkov and 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."

In terms of the goaltending, the Panthers are expected go with Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 1 against the Islanders. A two-time Vezina Trophy winner, 31-year-old netminder went 23-19-6 during the regular season with a .900 save percentage.

Looking to return to form, Bobrovsky's history against the Islanders bodes well for the Panthers in this series. In 27 career appearances against New York, he owns a 16-10-0 record with a stellar .928 save percentage and three shutouts.

"We know the importance of goaltending and we're going to rely on him," Quenneville said of Bobrovsky. "We're expecting him to do his thing."

At the other end of the ice, all signs seem to point to Semyon Varlamov getting the nod in net in Game 1 for the Islanders. During the regular season, the 32-year-old goaltender went 19-14-6 with a .914 save percentage and two shutouts.

If Varlamov struggles, however, they could turn to Tomas Griess, who has great success against the Panthers in the past. During the playoffs in 2016, he served as New York's backbone, stifling Florida's attack with a .944 save percentage.

Quenneville said the Panthers will be prepared to face either goaltender.

"We'll be talking about both goalies going into it. Then we'll zoom in on the guy that's playing," Quenneville said. "As players, you want to make sure you don't make it easy on them seeing pucks. If the goalies see pucks, they're all going to get the job done."

Throwing out all of the aforementioned statistics and storylines, the Panthers don't need to be reminded of what's at stake in this series. It's an opportunity to not only get revenge, but to also alter the fortunes of the franchise as a whole.

If the Panthers can manage to beat the Islanders, it will mark the first time that they've won a postseason series since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

"Now, we get another chance," Barkov said. "Obviously, back then I remember we were kind of young team and had a really good chance to beat them, but they were a little bit better in that series. Now, we've got a new chance against the same organization. I don't know how many guys there are from the last playoff meeting against us, but probably same thing. They probably remember that, how they beat us, and we remember how they beat us. Of course, we want to beat them."

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Both in their first season with Florida, Brian Boyle (114) and Anton Stralman (104) have each competed in over 100 Stanley Cup Playoff games. The two veterans also reached the Stanley Cup Final together back in 2014 and 2015.

-- Mike Hoffman posted 59 points during the regular season, including a team-leading 29 goals. The 30-year-old winger also led the team in shots on goal (214) and was tied with Evgenii Dadonov for the lead in goals on the power play (11).

-- Jonathan Huberdeau led the Panthers in scoring during the regular season with 78 points (23 goals, 55 assists). A 2020 NHL All-Star, the 27-year-old also led the team with 21 multi-point performances, including four four-point contests.

-- Aleksander Barkov finished second on Florida with 62 points (20 goals, 42 assists) during the regular season. The 24-year-old also led the club's forwards in average ice time (20:01) and won a career-best 54.28 percent of his face offs.

-- In his first season with the Panthers, Noel Acciari netted a career-high 20 goals, including back-to-back hat tricks in December. The 28-year-old also posted 27 points, 121 hits and led all NHL forwards in blocked shots (103).

-- Acquired from Carolina at the trade deadline, Erik Haula registered two assists in seven games with the Panthers before the pause. In 44 career playoff games, the 29-year-old forward has racked up nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points.

-- Sitting at 118 wins, Joel Quenneville needs just five more to tie Al Arbour for second place on the NHL's all-time playoff victories list among head coaches.

PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)

Forwards

Frank Vatrano - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov

Jonathan Huberdeau - Erik Haula - Mike Hoffman

Lucas Wallmark - Brian Boyle - Brett Connolly

Colton Sceviour - Noel Acciari - Mark Pysyk

Defensemen

MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Mike Matheson

Goalies

Sergei Bobrovsky

Chris Driedger

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Saturday, Aug. 1 at 4 p.m. ET

Where: Scotiabank Arena - Toronto, ON

TV: FSF, NBCSN

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); SiriusXM 91 / Streaming 938

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