It’s here! It’s finally here! The Panthers have returned to the playoffs, and puck drops on Game 1 tonight. This what we all wanted and this is what we have been waiting for. I’m so excited, as I am sure everyone else is too.
But enough yaking, let’s take a look at the series ahead.
Projected Lineups + TV Schedule
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A Notable Season Series
These two teams played against each other three times this season, the standard amount between two non-division conference foes. However, all three of those games could be considered pivotal moments from a Panthers perspective.
The first came on November 27th. If you recall, it was not a happy time in Pantherland. Our beloved Cats lumbered into the night on a 3 game losing streak, their third such streak in just 21 games. At 8-9-4, they sat 7th in the Atlantic, behind even the Buffalo Sabres.
That night, Gerard Gallant shook up his lineup, particularly the defense. No more was the inefficient Willie Mitchell – Erik Gudbranson defensive pairing, in was a configuration that flowed more sensibly and it paid immediate dividends. The Panthers beat the Islanders 4-3 in the shootout, embarking on a five game win streak. They would never see the wrong side of .500 again in 2015-16.
The next game was just as important. The Panthers were 14-12-4 in 6th place of the Atlantic, 11 points behind Montréal for first place. With three losses in their last four games, a win was needed to get the Panthers back on track. And win they did, though it was not pretty as they were handedly outshot. Yet, the 5-1 rout sure made them feel good.
They felt so good, in fact, that they did not lose another game in 2015. By month’s end, the Panthers would rocket past Montréal for first place in the Atlantic. The ensuing win streak would reach a franchise record 12 games. When that ended on January 11, they had opened a six point lead on Detroit for first place.
The Panthers and Islanders would meet for a final time in the regular season on March 14. While the previous two meetings represented positive, watershed moments for the 2015-16 season, this one was not so sweet. Victory seemed assured, with the Cats leading 2-0 with 8 minutes left in the third. However, a strong push from the Islanders put three pucks in the net, and the Panthers left Brooklyn without a point, delaying the Panthers rise back into first place.
With how meaningful all of these games were to the Panthers, is it not fitting that the Islanders are their first round opponent?
If I was going to tell you to watch one Panther, I would suggest you watch Sasha Barkov. He’s obviously a fan favorite among the fanbase, and that goes doubly around this blog. What’s not to love the Finnish center? He just finished a career year in which he finished with 59 points, tied for third on the team with Jonathan Huberdeau. However, Barkov reach that in 66 games player, that’s ten fewer than Huberdeau. He also scored 28 goals, blowing away his career high from last season of 16.
Admittedly, his underlying numbers have not been as strong this season as they were his first two seasons. However, given those numbers are also not bad, and his offensive explosion, I am willing to forgive this. In fact, stop for a second and consider this about Sasha: over the last 25 games of the season, he was tied for 15th most points in the league (24), tied for 9th most goals (12), and tied for 4th most even strength goals. To say he is coming into the playoffs looking good would be an understatement. Simply put, he has been one of the best offensive players in the league coming down the stretch of the season.
Thus, he is my pick to click.
This series will begin against a backdrop of injuries. The Panthers injuries are well-documented amongst the faithful. The biggest loss is Vincent Trocheck, who remains out with a broken foot. It does appear that he should return at some point during this series. However, given how strong he was playing before his injury, and how well his line with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith, his presence will continue to be missed early in the series. The Panthers will get Erik Gudbranson back from the same type of injury though.
That leaves Steven Kampfer and Willie Mitchell on the shelf. Kampfer, like Trocheck, should be available at some point during this series, which should be fine. He and Petrovic represent that back end of the Panthers depth, and Mike Matheson is just behind them in reserve, so the Panthers are in good shape there. Mitchell, on the other hand, has his future in doubt, and is unlikely to appear in another game ever again.
On the Islanders side, the most significant injury is to goaltender Jaroslav Halak. He has been ruled out of this series, having suffered a groin injury in early March. This is a fairly big blow, as the Islanders have and will continue to rely on Thomas Greiss to carry the load. To make matters more complicated, J-F Berube, the Islanders defacto #3 goaltender, is dealing with his own injury troubles, which forced 4th stringer Christopher Gibson into a couple games down the stretch.
Its not all bad news for the Islanders though. They will be getting blueliner Travis Hamonic back, who has been out over the last couple weeks with a lower-body injury. He and partner Calvin de Haan have the best CF% of any Islanders defensemen. Getting a solid contributor like him back is a boon to the Islanders defense. This is all-important for a team that could have trouble in net if things start going sideways.
The Islanders are an opponent to be reckoned with. However, I can not see them dispatching the Panthers in a seven game series. I have the utmost confidence in the Panthers to get the job done.
Panthers in 5 (In fairness, I committed to this before knowing Hamonic was coming back, but hey, its my pick and I’m sticking with it. Fire away.)