The New York Islanders got what they wished for when they finished as the first wild card and now face a first-round playoff match-up with the Florida Panthers. While the Penguins may be the hottest team in the league as the playoffs get under way, the Panthers are hardly a pushover. They finished the regular season with 103 points, three more than the Islanders. They also have a good mix of talented younger players like Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad and experienced veterans like Roberto Luongo, Brian Campbell, Jussi Jokinen and Jaromir Jagr.
Unlike last season, the Islanders do enter the playoffs with some pressure on them. The Isles’ season will be judged solely on how they do in the playoffs. If they lose in the first round to Florida, this season will be seen as a disappointment. If they win their first playoff series since 1993, the 2015-16 campaign will be viewed as another step forward in the development of a young team on the rise.
Here is a look at the five biggest keys for the Islanders in this series. If most of these issues break the Islanders way, they have a good chance of winning the series. If they can’t, it will likely be another short stay in the postseason for the Islanders.
5. Get Healthy
The Islanders actually lost fewer man games to injury this season than they did a year ago. Still, some of those losses were significant including starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak, young forward Anders Lee and highly-regarded defenseman Travis Hamonic.
Hamonic is a huge key for the Isles. He is their steadiest defensive defenseman and plays more minutes than any player on the team when he’s fully healthy. Coach Jack Capuano relies on Hamonic to contain the best offensive players on opposing teams. Without him, the Isles depth on defense is severely limited, especially against playoff teams.
Hamonic practiced with the Islanders on Tuesday and could be back on the ice as soon as Game 1 of the Panthers series. The question is how quickly the 25-year-old defenseman can get back into game shape after missing at least two weeks worth of action.
The playoffs are a physical grind. Getting Hamonic back and keeping him and the other banged up players healthy will be important for the Isles.
Halak is not expected back until late in the opening series at the earliest. He has not played since March 8. It remains to be seen what kind of an impact, if any, he can have when he is ready to return to action.
4. Slow Down Jaromir Jagr and the Panthers offense
The Panthers are a talented and fast skating team, but veteran winger Jaromir Jagr is their heart and soul. Roughly half of his current teammates weren’t even born yet in 1990 when Jagr made his NHL debut with Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s won scoring titles, big playoff games and Stanley Cups. He’s succeeded for years on the biggest stages the game has to offer and no player in the history of the Islanders franchise has scored more points against the Isles than Jagr.
The Islanders need to slow Jagr down. This will be a bigger challenge without a fully healthy Hamonic.
The Islanders also need their forwards to be physical with Jagr and try to wear down the 44-year-old native of the Czech Republic so they can make him feel his age. Don’t be surprised to see the Islanders fourth line out there occasionally against Jagr to play the body and wear him down while Frans Nielsen also gets plenty of time against Jagr.
The Panthers have other offensive weapons, but Jagr is the linchpin of the team emotionally. Frustrate him and the younger players may also become uneasy.
3. Secondary Scoring
Islanders fans know this has been an issue for the Islanders all season. After John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, the Islanders need their secondary scorers to step up and provide enough offense for the team to win hockey games.
Brock Nelson scored 26 goals but was very streaky and he needs to be “on” in this series. Players like Josh Bailey, Ryan Strome, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin need to produce enough offense collectively to keep up with the Panthers talented crew. On most teams, any offense the fourth line provides is a bonus but the Isles “energy line” is capable of scoring some, too.
When the Islanders get secondary scoring, they can win consistently. Without it, they struggle. Success in this series will be difficult without offensive contributions throughout the lineup.
2. Special Teams
Special teams become even more important in the playoffs when games are more physical and every inch of ice is contested. It is the one time during the game that your best players have a little more room to be creative and showcase their skills.
This is also statistically the area the Islanders have the biggest advantage in this series. The Islanders have the league’s 13th best power play (18.7 percent) which will be going up against the Panthers 24th-ranked penalty kill (79.5 percent).
The Islanders penalty killing has been a strength all season, ranking second in the league with an 85.5 percent kill rate. The Panthers power play ranked 24th in the league, converting on 16.9 percent of their chances.
The Isles need to continue their success on special teams in this series. If they don’t win the special teams battle, they will have difficulty taking the series.
1. Greiss Needs to Step Up
Thomas Greiss has set new career highs in games played (41), wins (23) and save percentage (.925). But being successful in the regular season is one thing and leading a team on a long playoff run is another. Greiss still has less than 60 minutes of NHL playoff experience and has yet to show he can lead a team to playoff success.
At some point in this series, the Isles will need Greiss to keep them in a game when they’re being severely outplayed and maybe even steal a game or two.
Unless he steps up and shows that he can handle the pressure of being “the man” in the postseason, the Islanders chances of winning this series are slim at best.
The Islanders wanted to play the Panthers in the playoffs. While Florida is not as experienced as Pittsburgh, they are not an easy opponent. The Islanders will have an opponent that plays a high-speed game and has a lot of offensive skill. Roberto Luongo will certainly be eager to succeed against the team that drafted him and then later traded him away early in his career.
The series will be a close one, but the Isles will probably fall just short. The pick: Panthers in 6.