Finally, the wait is over. It has been long and dreadful but postseason hockey is here. Starting August 1, the NHL will officially begin its Return To Play Plan. The 2020 qualifying round will see 16 teams play in eight separate best-of-five series’. Winners will be granted entry into the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As you read, Last Word On Hockey will dive into the play-in series with the Florida Panthers and the New York Islanders.
Florida Panthers against the New York Islanders
Florida’s most recent run for Lord Stanley was back in 2016, where they were knocked out by the Islanders themselves. The cats found themselves out of the race after an extremely controversial non-tripping call against former Panther Vincent Trocheck. Shortly after, former Islanders captain John Tavares would score a wrap-around goal against Roberto Luongo to end the game. While this wasn’t too long ago, a lot has changed since. None of those players are on either team now and new storylines have emerged.
Panthers High Flying Offence
Before the hiatus, the New York Islanders had won all three match-ups against the Florida Panthers. Surprisingly, New York outscored Florida in those games eight to four. This could have been a fluke as the Panthers were one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL. Through 69 games, the Panthers were sixth in the league in goals for with 228. The Cats also had one of the most productive power-plays in the league. At 21.3 percent on the power play, this left Florida as the tenth best in the league.
While their power play was lacking toward the end of the season, if Florida can get back to form, they will be able to do some real damage. In order to do so, their five different 20-goal scorers will have to be the difference-makers. Flordia will lean on guys like Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Noel Acciari. Throughout the series, head coach Joel Quenneville will look for Florida to control the pace of the game, not just simply outscore their opponents.
Islanders Shut-Down Defense
Barry Trotz has given the Islanders the identity of a very systematic defensive zone structure. Since becoming New York’s coach in 2018, the Isles have allowed nearly the fewest goals in the league. In fact, from 2018 to now, the Islanders have allowed the third-lowest amount of goals with 381. But New York’s also finished in third for the least amount of goal-against per game with 2.54 in the same time period.
The Islanders’ defensive zone structure is fantastic — look at what it did last year against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. The Isles can look to the line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin as their shut-down line. While playing together, this line doesn’t let much get by them. This line has an expected goal against of 3.1, ranking them as fifth-best throughout the league.
Goaltending is possibly the biggest storyline of this play-in series. The game within the game should see Sergei Bobrovsky go head to head with Semyon Varlamov, even though Thomas Greiss played two of the three games against the Panthers this season. Varlamov saw more of the games in 2019–20, finishing the season 19-4-6 record. With a .914 save percentage through those 45 games, Varlamov did not allow much behind him. Saving 95.68 percent of unblocked shots left Varlamov ranked fifth in the league for goalies with at least 45 games.
On the other side of the ice, we find Bobrovsky. Panthers fans are waiting to see if Bob can return to his incredible 2019 playoff run against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is beyond obvious to say that Bobrovsky had an off-year. As a matter of fact, it was his worst career year in save percentage and goals-against average. Along with the third-highest goals allowed in a season with 151 through 50 games.
Despite his off-year, Bobrovsky is still very good even with a less defensively sound team in front of him, compared to Columbus. With a much heavier game load, Bobrovsky is still able to see the puck. Only six goalies in the league played over 50 games, and Bobrovsky ranked fourth in save percentage of unblocked shots with 94.27 percent. With the sixth most shots against, Bobrovsky has still been solid in net.
With that being said, it will be quite interesting to see how these two teams play against each other. Making this a nice rematch of the 2016 playoff series, it seems like there is going to be a different outcome than the past. Coming off the break, it is easier for players to get into the swing of things offensively. While the old saying is defence wins championships, the Panthers look to have the edge moving forward. Florida’s got a dominating power play and the ability to score five or more goals a night.
This match-up will likely go the distance and should be more entertaining than most people expect. The Islanders will struggle to keep up with the Panthers speed and offensive ability through five games. Florida in five.
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