(AP) — The New York Islanders beat the Florida Panthers in all three meetings during the season. However, the last one was way back in December -- three months before the NHL paused play due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, the teams will face off in their first meaningful game in 4 1/2 months when they open a best-of-five elimination series Saturday in Toronto.
Islanders forward Jordan Eberle believes shaking off the rust quickly will be crucial for any team with aspirations of a deep playoff run.
“It’s whoever is going to be mentally ready quick enough, whoever’s team is playing at the right time,” he said. “The one that adapts the quickest, the one that’s going to play a good system the quickest.”
New York was rolling along in the early part of the season, and its 3-2 win at Florida on Dec. 12 came in the midst of a stretch of six wins in eight games that improved its record to 22-7-2. They struggled with consistency after that and went 0-3-4 before the pause to sit at 35-23-10.
The Panthers, who dropped to 15-11-5 after that loss to New York, got hot the following week and won 13 of 17 heading into the All-Star break. They hit a skid of their own before winning their final two games to move to 35-26-8.
“We’re excited about where we’re at,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “We got a team that’s got a lot to prove.”
Brock Nelson led the Islanders with 26 goals, and Mathew Barzal was tops with 41 assists and 60 points. Jean-Gabriel Pageau also had 26 gpals — all but two coming before being acquired from Ottawa near the trade deadline.
The Panthers were led Jonathan Huberdeau (23 goals, 55 assists), Aleksander Barkov (25 goals, 42 assists) and Mike Hoffman (29 goals, 30 assists). .
“They got a serious top six — it’s one the best in the league — and then their back end is great too,” Barzal said. “We’re going to have to be sharp.”
The Islanders are in the postseason for the second straight year. They swept Pittsburgh in the first round a year ago before being swept by Carolina in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Panthers, who lost a six-game series against the Islanders in the 2016 playoffs, are in the postseason for the first time since then. Florida has not won a playoff series in four tries since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in the franchise’s third season in 1996.
“Can’t wait to play the games,” Barkov ssid. “I have been waiting for the playoffs forever. This is the best time. .. We’re excited and can’t wait to be on the ice and play against the Islanders.”
OFFENSE VS. DEFENSE
The Islanders’ trademark in two years under coach Barry Trotz has been a strong defense-first mindset. Though they were 22nd in the league in scoring at 2.78 goals per game, their 2.79 goals allowed was ninth.
They’ll have to be on top of their game against a Panthers team that was sixth in scoring at 3.30 goals per game and 10th on the power play (21.3%).
Eberle pointed to struggles offenses have in the beginning of seasons, and believes the Islanders’ approach can give them an edge.
“At the start of the year, it seems to me offense is always a little bit sloppier,” he said. “Power plays may not be clicking as good as it needs to be. Penalty-kill, hard work always speeds it out.”
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Semyon Varlamov (19-14-6, 2.62 goals-against average, 2 shutouts) figures to get the nod for New York, with Thomas Greiss (16-9-4, 2.74 GAA) ready to step in. Greiss started all six games against Florida in the 2016 playoff matchup.
Sergei Bobrovsky (23-19-6, 3.23 GAA) figures to start for the Panthers, with Chris Dreidger (7-2-1, 2.05 GAA) ready as the backup,
ALL HEALED UP
When the season was paused on March 11, the Islanders were without forward Casey Cizikas (cut on leg) and defensemen Adam Pelech (Achilles) and Johnny Boychuk (eye). The extended break has allowed all three to heal up — especially Pelech, who was expected to miss the rest of the season — to bolster the Islanders’ chances.
New York is fully healthy for the first time since December when Cal Clutterbuck was cut on his wrist by a skate against Boston. Clutterbuck was out for more than two months. .
Quenneville won three Stanley Cups as a head coach in Chicago (2010, ‘13, ’15) and Trotz won in 2018 with Washington.
“He’ll have his team ready,” Trotz said. “He will have us scouted really well, and I think we’ll have them scouted really well. It’ll be enjoyable. It’ll be a challenge.”