User Note: Use this post for tonight's in-game thread.
Dale Tallon's summer splurge appears to have had its intended effect: The Panthers have improved enough, barring a final weeks collapse, to give South Florida fans a taste of playoff hockey for the first time in a decade. Better yet, they're currently in the Southeast Division lead, which means home-ice advantage and a less devastating first-round opponent than their fellow bubble-dwellers.
It's good to be Southeast.
Islanders (30-33-11, 14th/E) @ Panthers (36-24-14, 7th/E, 1st/SE)
5 p.m. EDT | MSG+ | Audio: NHL - WRHU
[awkward corporate compound word] Center
Prepping Playoff Catnip: Litter Box Cats
Where the Panthers go from here is the next question, as some of their summer additions were short-sighted but good enough to get them this far. Much like the Islanders in 2001-02 after Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar bough the team, the rationale for taking a short-term plunge to re-invigorate the fanbase is understandable. (And unlike the Islanders in summer 2001, no first-round picks nor future Norris winners were harmed in the making of this upgrade.)
The Panthers also have a promising prospect pipeline that might help provide cheap talent when some of the longer-term commitments feel onerous. Which means one thing they cannot afford to do: Overpay for one-year wonder Jason Garrison. Guy has 16 goals by shooting 10.9% this season. Blueliners don't tend to repeat that.
There is still work to be done for this 2012 happy ending though: With 86 points the Panthers are first in the Southeast ... but just four points above ninth in the conference. It's unlikely that they'll fall below Washington and Ottawa and Buffalo (they have two games in hand on the latter two, one game in hand on Washington), but that is how fragile their lead is at this point.
Which makes tonight a must-win for the Panthers against the league's 28th-ranked team. They recently blew a winnable game to Carolina and only fetched a regulation point from Edmonton. If they don't grab two points tonight: anxiety.
The Panthers have won the first three games of this season series ... so what could possibly go wrong?
Meanwhile, plenty of other standings-relevant NHL action today. NBC Sports has a double-header with Washington in action at 5 p.m. (same time as the Isles-Panthers game), followed by Chicago-Nashville. If you have Center Ice, there's much more and tonight's one of those nights tailor-made for channel-hopping.
With the back-to-back travel day, no morning lineup news. But expect Evgeni Nabokov to go back in goal. Jay Pandolfo and Milan Jurcina have been the scratches in the last two games. We'll see if last night's loss provokes any tweaks involving those two pending unrestricted free agents. UPDATE: Indeed, sounds like Pandolfo re-enters, while the scratches are to be determined.
Amusing: The Isles' leading scorer against Florida this year is none other than Brian Rolston, tied with John Tavares and Matt Moulson with 1 goal and 1 assist each. Rolston was even while those guys were minus-5 in the previous three games.
Not amusing: Kris Versteeg and Thomas Fleischmann have piled up four points each against the Islanders this year.
Your First Islanders Goal pick thread is over here.
Game Thread Note: Given usual traffic patterns on a Sunday afternoon, we'll have this post serve double-duty as the in-game thread.check out Mark's weekly prospect update. For the usual Sunday post,