This year will be a different experience for Islanders fans as the playoffs begin against the Panthers, and not just because the two teams have no playoff history against one another. With the wild card having the Islanders cross over to the (New) Atlantic side of the playoff bracket, any animosity will have to be developed from scratch (beginning early in Game 1, if playoff history is any guide).
But there is also an atmospheric if not literal kinship here: The Panthers are still the team Bill Torrey, the beloved "Architect" of the Islanders dynasty, helped launch and is still employed by (and rooting for) today. Denis Potvin, the second-greatest defenseman to grace NHL ice, is back in their booth after a brief return to his home with the Senators.
And frankly, both fanbases know a thing or two about being left for dead amid the fallout from years of ownership instability.
These things were on our mind as JC Smith of Litter Box Cats and I exchanged questions before the series. Below are my questions that Smith answered. You can find the other half of our exchange with my answers over at Litter Box Cats.
LHH: The Panthers remind me a bit of the Islanders last year: lots of good young players taking that proverbial "next step," a well-liked (by players) coach, and a team that has quietly put up good numbers even while being dismissed by certain ignorant media. What have been the keys to their success this season? How important has former Isles assistant Gerard Gallant been?
LBC: Well, you nailed it with the 2nd part of that question, because there is likely no where near this level of success without Gerard Gallant. That is not to say that the roster is not greatly improved, nor that Dale Tallon has not done yeoman's work, but it is Gallant that put together a game plan that has led to this season's Division crown. The keys to success are undoubtedly, patience with good draft selections, solid and well chosen free agent signings, great depth that got the team through injury stretches, and the defensive system that Gallant has instilled.
You are quite correct that the Cats have been dismissed by many in the media, but we dug deep into the real metrics, and Gallant's system has led to not just lots of shots for, but fewer shots, but they are being taken from higher probability areas of the ice. At the same time, the team is really helping their goalies by denying the same for the opposition and cutting down opponents' speed through the neutral zone. Gallant deserves major credit, and Tallon is right behind him for the depth he has created.
LHH: Roberto Luongo, who should've been an Islander for life, played 62 games at age 37. Assume he starts both ends of the Thursday-Friday back-to-back?
Wow. Great question I have been giving some thought to. I think the plan is to let him start both, but they will let game 1 dictate the final decision. There is real confidence in back-up Al Montoya, so they are confident they can rest Lu if needed. But that is likely not the plan if I had to venture a guess.
LHH: The Panthers have had their own series of ownerships and ups and (mostly) downs, stops and starts, a situation Islanders fans know well. Now they've done a proper restart, cut back on ticket discounting just to fill the building, and rode an exciting young team (plus one ageless Hall of Famer) to a division title.
In terms of getting the fan base back and building momentum, is that enough for this year? Or do they have to win the franchise's first series in 20 years to keep people believing and buying?
LBC: I think the answer here was established in the sales numbers this season. Even in games that might have drawn 7000 or fewer butts in seats last year, the team saw 3-4,000 more tickets sold this season. It rolled along most of the season.
That does not mean the team is "there" yet, but they are well on the way, and likely ahead of schedule. It was expected that the team would compete for a playoff spot this year, but a Division title was not something anyone thought possible with Tampa around.
All that said, this is a good hockey market- mostly due to northern transplants (like me!) - but with a healthy and growing locally raised fan group as well. For a team as bad as the Panthers for so long, fans did actually stick with the team. The trick has been to get them back to the building, and new ownership has done a great job of that.
My opinion is that regardless of what happens in the playoffs this season, the fans will be back in force next season, in numbers at least similar to this one, and likely a bit better. I can't overstate how good a job new ownership is doing at getting people back.
As an aside- many Panther fans have a real soft spot for the Isles fans as similarly downtrodden. I attended a game at Nassau two or three years ago against the Panthers and was very impressed with the Isles fans in the upper deck, and some of their chants and songs that they all knew the words to. I would love to see something like that develop here in South Florida.