The Islanders and Panthers haven’t made a mark on the league in years. For this reason, many casual fans will see his as an uninteresting matchup. Islanders’ fans have been reminiscing about their once-dominant team of the 80s that hasn’t been recreated while the Panthers haven’t even won a series since 1996. Their solution to get out of this stagnation? They each hired some of the highest-profile coaches of our era.
Coaching and Style
The coaching resumes in this series are unmatched. Defending Jack Adams winner, Barry Trotz and newly appointed Panthers coach, Joel Quenneville are two of the top five winningest coaches of all time. With 4 Stanley Cup and 3 Jack Adams between them, they are proven as all-time greats. However, they do have very different approaches to the game. Trotz focuses on playing a highly structured style with little slipping through. The Islanders attack is very predictable in where they generate their chances from as they put a heavy focus on point shots and getting the puck right into the slot. They dump the puck in, or as Trotz says, they place a place and chase game. Every decision they make is very predictable but it works. Trotz also has very specific deployment of his players in terms of the situation he needs them in.
Quenneville, on the other hand, is a lot more pragmatic. He adapts to beat teams but still keeps a focus on building the attack going forward. He has quite the uncontrollable roster but creates a style that directs the chaos to benefit his team. Just like Trotz, he also likes to use a specific deployment of players but he focuses on allowing them to use their strengths, rather than containing them within a system.
Both teams have new goalies going into this season. The Islanders have been riding Seymon Varlamov, who’s performed really well. While Trotz has a tight defensive system that shelters Varlamov from hard chances, he has in no way been a detriment. That is very important as a reliable base is all the Islanders can ask for. Goalies can be completely voodoo, but Varlamov is a safe bet to hold up in the series.
The Panthers just splashed big money to acquire the only active multiple time Vezina Trophy winner. Sergei Bobrovsky has had a couple of exceptionally dominant seasons before and was elite in the playoffs last year. However, consistency is a problem and this season hasn’t been a good one. It could be that he’s used to playing behind the more structured system Tortorella uses, but he needs to find form again. We all know he’s capable of great things and could steal a series, but for now, it’s impossible to give the Panthers the edge in goal.
These are two different defensive builds. The Islanders play within Trotz’s structure with little star power but responsible play. The main use of the Islanders’ defence is to keep good spacing between them and carefully move the puck up. This is seen as each one of their pairings has one of the top rush leading defencemen in the league with Toews, Leddy and Pelech. The other partner, Mayfield, Boychuk and Pulock sits back and covers deeper while making sure nothing slips through. I don’t love this d-core as there isn’t much dynamic game-changing ability, but they have a clear purpose in the way they’re built. It’s predictable, but it gets the job done no matter which pairing they put out.
The Panthers defensive group is actually very complete with great players. Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar are a strong top pairing with Ekblad playing a good 200-foot game with responsible play in his own end to a good offensive quarterbacking ability. MacKenzie Weegar covers the area in-between as a great neutral zone player. He is at the top of the league in preventing the rush but also leading it the other way. The second pairing is highlighted by Mike Matheson, who’s come into his own as a very well rounded player. On the defensive end, he’s hard to beat. This may be crucial in bullying the Islanders system around the net and making them second guess their play going forward. Stralman can partner him by filling his missing abilities in the passing department. Keith Yandle is also a nice specialty player to have. While he’s getting old, he’s still one of the best passers in the game and can be used to split the Islanders’ structure or as a powerplay specialist.
The Islanders system is much safer and smart with their play. They methodically prevent offence and skate the puck up the other way eventually breaking the opposition. It can be very frustrating to play against if it works but the upside on the Panther’s defence is a lot higher as they can impact the game in more ways.
The Islanders’ forward group follows the dynamic of play created by their rush leading defencemen. They don’t carry the puck, but rather recover the dump-ins from the defence with a very effective forecheck. The rest of the structure sits back and supports the tight spacing between their teammates. This structure applies to everyone except one player. Mathew Barzal is one of the most dynamic, game-changing forwards in hockey. The NHL’s holder of the fastest skating competition uses his skating and puck skills to simultaneously be one the most elite puck carriers and playmakers. As soon as a team thinks they’ve figured out the Islanders’ structure, Barzal changes the dynamic of the game and rips the opposition apart. His linemate, Jordan Eberle does contribute to the forecheck and can play within the structure while being on Barzal’s wavelength. Anders Lee can also serve as a trigger man to covert some of the attack.
The rest of the Islander’s forward group hardly stands out. They mostly play a strong forechecking game and Bailey serves as a strong playmaker for a shooter like Nelson. Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a player who they added prior to the trade deadline and he adds a new dimension to this team as an extremely effective long passer. During his time in Ottawa, Pageau would begin all the attacks from deep and use his pinpoint stretch passes to attack in transition. While Trotz focuses on using the defence in build-up, Pageau has continued to excel in this role for the Islanders which could send the opposition’s plan out the window. It wouldn’t be a complete breakdown of the Islander forwards if I didn’t mention their checking line featuring Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck. They are the typical grinders and have produced extremely effective forechecking numbers. They are also a rare breed of grinders that are effective at not only intimidating the opposition but also playing effective shutdown defence.
The Panthers forward group features quite a bit more firepower. Their captain, Aleksander Barkov is a very misunderstood player. Many would claim that his defensive acumen makes him the most underrated player in the league but the numbers show him as a liability defensively. In my eyes, Barkov is indeed one of the most dangerous centers in the league. He has all the defensive tools but has stopped paying attention to the details on that end of the ice in exchange for a potent and creative offensive game. He is a dynamic skater and playmaker that will go head to head with Barzal. He will likely have excellent skater, Frank Vatrano on his wing and they’ll focus on splitting the Islanders’ team defence in transition. The rest of the Panthers’ attack will be reliant on the high shooting talent of guys like Huberdeau and Hoffman. Huberdeau, the Panthers’ all-time leader in scoring, is an interesting player as he produced a very high number of points this year in a very direct way. He starts his attack from deep, splits the opposition and has a deadly scoring touch. Beating the Islanders’ forecheck and defensive structure will be key and will likely decide the series. Noel Acciari will also be one to watch as he offers the typical defensive base but also enjoyed an unusually high shooting percentage. New York’s depth and structure against the Panthers’ firepower will be the theme of the series.
Key Factors and Final Thoughts
The Islanders’ are easily the safest bet in this series as they don’t need much to go right. Their structure, playstyle and depth are reliable and hard to break down and while their predictability significantly hinders the upside from this group, you know what you’re going to get. With that being said, the upside from the Panthers’ is unmatched. The potential for Bobrovsky in net and their well-built defensive group are better than what the Islanders offer. You can’t know that the system will be strong like the Islanders, but if their offensive talent comes through, they’ll move on to the playoffs easily.