Wednesday was an exciting night of playoff hockey and it continues with four games tonight. The Lightning-Red Wings engaged in a physical affair, the Penguins-Rangers had a surprising battle of the backup goalies and the Blues-Blackhawks played in an ultra-exciting 1-0 OT game.
Shortly after the Capitals and Flyers get underway, the Panthers and Islanders will face-off in Game 1 of their opening round series. This series doesn’t have the look of a marquee matchup, but both of these teams are exciting to watch and this will likely be an underrated series. These teams met two times during the regular season, with the Panthers winning the season series 2-1.
The best forward in the series belongs to the Islanders, John Tavares, but as a group I like the Panthers better. Florida is a team that had everything going right in the regular season and they made things even better at the trade deadline, when they brought in veterans Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell to give them three scoring lines. Their top-line has been the same all season as long as Aleksander Barkov has been healthy. According to corsica.hockey, the line of Barkov, Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Hubderdeau is only one of seven trios that has played more than 500 minutes together this season and they rank second among those trios in Goals For per 60 minutes, with 3.59. Unfortunately for the Panthers they will be without Vincent Trocheck, who had a brilliant season, but Nick Bjugstad is not a bad replacement at all. Rocco Grimaldi was recalled towards the end of the season and will centre the trade deadline acquisitions for the seventh straight game—he had two goals in one assist in the last six.
The Islanders were dealt a big blow towards the end of the season when Anders Lee broke his left fibula. Lee led the Islanders in power-play goals with eight and his loss will be felt with the man advantage. His injury has also forced the Isles to move their second line centre Frans Nielsen to the wing. 23-year-old Alan Quine took his lineup spot and will centre the third-line. His first career NHL playoff game will be just his third career game.
These bluelines are very comparable. Travis Hamonic will return to the Islanders lineup tonight, which is huge for the Islanders’ blueline. He is one of the steadiest young two-way defensemen in the NHL and plays alongside another steady young blueliner in Calvin de Haan. Their top pair of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy both had a lot of offensive upside and led the Islanders’ blueline in points this season—they’re also the only two defenseman to register a power-play goal this year.
The Panthers’ blueline is solid as well. They are led by last year’s Rookie of the Year, Aaron Ekblad. Speaking of steady, young defensemen…Ekblad has as bright of an NHL future as any second year player in the NHL. He has played the majority of the year next to veteran Brian Campbell, who was third in the NHL in plus/minus (+31) this season. The Panthers don’t have a tonne of playoff experience, but Erik Gudbranson’s game is perfect for playoff hockey. He is a stay-at-home D-man, who loves to deliver punishing body checks.
The Islanders might be the favourite in this series if Jaroslav Halak were healthy, but he will miss at least the first round of the playoffs. That leaves Thomas Greiss to man the Isles’ crease. Greiss had a strong season, but has never made a start in the NHL playoffs. He won 23 games and his only start vs. the Panthers, but was just 9-7-1 with a 2.55 GAA and .924 SV% on the road this season.
Roberto Luongo revisited his days of being an elite NHL goalie at the age of 37. He won at least 35 games for the first time since 2010-11 and for just the sixth time in his NHL career. He posted a rock-solid 2.35 GAA, .922 SV% and four shutouts in 60 starts and was 2-1-0 with a fantastic 1.96 GAA and .931 SV% in three starts vs. the Islanders. As long as it is Luongo vs. Greiss, the Panthers have the edge in goal.
Prediction: Panthers Win
Brock’s Prediction Record: 1-2
I picked the Panthers to win the series, however the Islanders won’t go down easily. They have one of the best, most physical fourth lines in the NHL and they’re sure to cause problems for the Panthers. That said, I like the Panthers to take Game 1 on home ice.
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