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The New York Islanders and Florida Panthers go head-to-head in a best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifying series that features many former Sound Tigers, beginning August 1.
Here’s an in-depth look at what you can expect from Bridgeport’s parent club.
The Islanders-Panthers series presents a clash of styles, as head coach Barry Trotz's defensively-focused Islanders team goes up against a high-octane Panthers squad.
The Isles allowed the ninth-fewest goals against per game (2.79) this season, and were fifth in the league prior to Adam Pelech’s Achilles tendon injury. Trotz's team is known for its structure and commitment, content with giving up low percentage shots from the outside and protecting the middle of the ice. They led the league in blocked shots (1,153) and finished first in hits/60 with 27.71 (1,915 total, which was second). The Isles defense also looked stingy in a 2-1 exhibition win over the Rangers, holding the league's fifth-ranked offense to one goal - and some long stretches without a shot on net.
"You look at our team, we've been a good defensive team since Barry has stepped in," Jordan Eberle said on the last day of training camp. "The fact that we have that foundation, the fact that we know positionally how we need to play in order to win. If we can stick to that, it'll definitely help us win some games."
Offensively, the Isles were 22nd in the NHL with 2.78 goals per game, despite finishing tied for third in high-danger chances at 5-on-5. While the Anders Lee-Mathew Barzal-Jordan Eberle line was potent heading into the pause, they are a team that scores by committee. The magic number is three, as the Isles are 31-3-5 when scoring three or more goals this season. They may not blow teams out, but as Trotz and Lou Lamoriello often say, you just need to score one more than your opponent.
The Panthers play an opposite game, adopting more of a run-and-gun approach. They were the sixth-highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 3.30 goals per game, while giving up the third-most goals-per-game (3.25), ahead of only Detroit and Ottawa.
While the Isles score by committee, the Panthers offense is a little more top heavy. Jonathan Huberdeau was tied for 10th in the NHL with 78 points (23g, 55a), while Aleksander Barkov's 62 points were tied for 30th.
"We know what they bring, they have a serious top-six, one of the best in the league," Barzal said.
Florida plays a less-physical game than the Isles, as they are 27th in the NHL in hits (1,247) and hits/60 (17.87), but are willing to block shots, as they finished 12th with 978. If both teams play to their strengths, it'll make for an interesting push-pull, especially in a shortened series.
Perhaps the biggest unknown in the NHL return is how every team will react to such a long layoff. The transition from training camp to playoffs will be a sharp one, especially with only one exhibition game separating them. Is there an advantage for an offensive team vs a defensive team? The Isles had some differing opinions.
"Every year at the start of the year, it seems to me like offense is a little bit sloppier," Eberle said. "Especially when you look at the special teams, the power play isn't clicking as good as it needs to be and on the penalty kill, hard work beats it out."
"It probably doesn't matter either way since so much time has passed," Brock Nelson said. "You want to try to find a healthy combo of both as quick as you can now. You can tighten things up, and lock things up defensively and get good goaltending and ride that, but on the flip side you want to get all your weapons going offensively. It's hard to say. One team might have been an offensive powerhouse early in the season, but so much time has passed things might have changed a little bit. It's hard to say."
The Isles scrimmaged four times in camp and Trotz is happy with the detail and pace in the Isles practices, but camp scrimmages lack the brutal physicality of the postseason, which will ramp up immediately.
Trotz has done what he can to prepare his group, like holding scrimmages on consecutive mornings to mimic the noon back-to-back starts in Games 2 and 3. The Islanders coach has preached controlling what his team can control, like their work ethic. In exhibition play, the Isles looked like their old selves vs the Rangers, clamping down defensively, playing with pace and attention to detail.
"I thought we had really good pace in our scrimmages back in New York. It was easy to translate that to today's game," Anthony Beauvillier said after the game. "We're just trying to get ready for Saturday for the real bullets. It'll help everyone for games moving forward."
The Panthers lost 5-0 to Tampa Bay in their lone tune-up, albeit without their top defensive pair of Aaron Ekblad - who is expected to play Game 1 - and MacKenzie Weegar. Panthers Head coach Joel Quenneville called the exhibition contest a "wake up call."
Time will tell whose game clicks faster once the play-in round starts, but Cal Clutterbuck said the Isles are not going to allow anyone to "out-prepare" them.