Play-in Preview: Pesky Islanders look to stymie high-powered Panthers
Al Bello / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The New York Islanders and Florida Panthers play totally opposite styles, and with veteran head coaches behind each bench, this Eastern Conference matchup could turn into somewhat of a chess match.

Florida has made the postseason just twice during the last two decades, while the Islanders look to crack the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons. Can the Panthers' run-and-gun style overwhelm the Islanders, or will New York's pesky approach knock Florida off its game?

Schedule

Game Date Time (ET)
1 Sat. Aug. 1 4 p.m.
2 Tue. Aug. 4 12:00 p.m.
3 Wed. Aug. 5 12:00 p.m.
4* Fri. Aug. 7 TBD
5* Sun. Aug. 9 TBD

*If necessary

Tale of the tape

Panthers Stat Islanders
35-26-8 Record 35-23-10
3.30 (6) Goals per game 2.78 (22)
3.25 (29) Goals against 2.79 (9)
21.3 (10) Power play % 17.3 (24)
78.5 (20) Penalty kill % 80.7 (15)
49.79 (16) 5-on-5 Corsi For % 46.45 (29)
9.01 (6) 5-on-5 SH% 7.88 (19)
.911 (29) 5-on-5 SV% .923 (10)

Season series

The Islanders implemented their game plan to its fullest against Florida in 2019-20, sweeping the season series 3-0 and holding the Panthers to just four goals across those contests. Netminder Thomas Greiss stood tall in all three games for New York while Panthers stars Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov combined for only one even-strength point.

It's hard to weigh the significance of those results, however, as the two clubs haven't faced off in nearly eight months; all three meetings came prior to Dec. 13, and each side has made key changes since. The deadline addition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau will help the Islanders match up at center, and Panthers newcomers Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark round out Florida's offensive depth.

Key players to watch

Aleksander Barkov

Eliot J. Schechter / National Hockey League / Getty

A premier two-way talent, Barkov will be tasked with catalyzing the Panthers' offense and keeping the Islanders' top scorers in check. The Finnish star slightly regressed offensively this season following his career-best 96-point campaign in 2018-19, but he remains the team's most important player and is counted upon in all situations.

One of the key matchups in this series will likely feature Barkov's line going against the defensive pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. Only four blue-liners spent more time on the ice against Barkov than the Islanders' shutdown duo this season. Though Barkov struggled to find the net, the Panthers' captain posted a dominant Corsi For rating (71.05) and expected goals-for percentage (67.77) while on the ice against Pulock and Pelech.

Mathew Barzal

Mike Stobe / National Hockey League / Getty

Barzal's tremendous vision and elite skating ability have helped him become one of the game's most dangerous playmakers. The 23-year-old tallied seven points in eight playoff games last spring and led the Islanders in scoring with 60 points in 68 contests this season while pacing the club's forwards in average ice time (20:03).

He's a possession monster whose ability to control the play gave the Panthers nightmares this season. New York owned 60.11% of expected goals for against Florida with Barzal on the ice at five-on-five and 64% of high-danger scoring chances. He also found the scoresheet in all three meetings, netting two goals and four points.

Florida will need to be particularly aware of Barzal in transition. The crafty pivot ranked second in the league with 66 takeaways at five-on-five and will make the Panthers pay for any mistakes in the neutral zone.

Panthers can win if ...

They score early. The Islanders have no problem gaining leads and sitting back in a neutral-zone trap to suffocate their opponent. With a league-best .963 winning percentage when leading after two periods, it will be paramount for the Panthers to implement their style and dictate the tempo of each contest early on.

Islanders can win if ...

Their numbing forecheck disarms the Panthers' potent offense. New York led the NHL this season in hits per 60 minutes (27.71) and Florida ranked fifth in turnovers per 60 (11.11). The Panthers rely on speed and skill through the neutral zone, and the Islanders will do all they can to keep their opponents in their own end while grinding down their defense.

X-Factors

Anders Lee

Mike Stobe / National Hockey League / Getty

The Islanders' captain has been the club's most consistent scoring threat over the last several seasons and will hope to rebound after regressing slightly in 2019-20. Lee hit the 20-goal mark for the fourth straight campaign and embodied the club's gritty style of play with 102 hits and 50 blocked shots this season.

It's not only the frequency of Lee's scoring but the timing of it that makes him such an important player. The 30-year-old owns a team-best 28 game-winning goals, including six this season. At 6-foot-3, Lee also has the ability to cause chaos in front of the Panthers' goal, and his 31 deflected shots ranked second in the league this season.

Sergei Bobrovsky

Norm Hall / National Hockey League / Getty

The Panthers will hope Bobrovsky has saved his best for this final stretch. The Russian netminder has had a debut season to forget, and his play against New York will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the series.

If Bobrovsky isn't sharp, Florida's offense may not be able to bail him out against the defensively sound Islanders. In what could be a low-scoring series, the 6-foot-2 puck-stopper simply can't afford to be outplayed in goal. Bobrovsky was phenomenal for the Columbus Blue Jackets during their stunning first-round sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019 and will hope to recapture that form.

(Analytics source: Natural Stat Trick)

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Play-in Preview: Pesky Islanders look to stymie high-powered Panthers
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