Forget the predictions, the picks and the stat and depth comparisons. Tonight, finally, it's just hockey.
Their series starts with an unusual back-to-back Games 1 and 2 tonight and Friday night. (Aside: Back in the day, this was how all playoff series began.) Here are some themes to ponder until we can start talking about what's actually happened in this series.
Injuries: They Have Them
The Islanders should be deep; the Panthers truly are.
New York's depth has taken a hit thanks to injuries to Anders Lee, Mikhail Grabovski and Jaroslav Halak -- though the latter at least has a strong replacement in Thomas Greiss. Lee's late-season leg break really hurts, as he's the only Islander who can be counted on to screen and command attention in front of the net on the power play. Brock Nelson will try to take on that role.
In good news for the Isles, Travis Hamonic looks ready to go after missing the final two weeks of the season with a knee injury.
The Panthers are relatively healthy, with Vincent Trochek (25 goals at age 22) their most significant injury, though he's expected to be available later in the series. Erik Gudbranson is expected back for Game 1. Willie Mitchell has been out a long while, but he's...not so essential these days.
Can the Islanders' Experience Give Them an Edge?
So the Islanders are hardly grizzled playoff veterans, but they do have two hard-fought appearances in the last three seasons, with a core that fully believes it's learned its lessons and is no longer just happy to be here long enough to put the scare in a better opponent.
Certainly if there's anything to that, one component will be that they know how smart physicality can really wear down an opponent over a seven-game series.
No surprise that people like Mike Rupp (who also dished out the ol' "best fourth line in hockey" line) would point to the fourth line:
[Barclays Center] is a nice barn, but it’s built for concerts. It’s weird because the scoreboard is off-center, and the acoustics make the crowd really loud. When they throw that fourth line out there, the puck gets dumped in deep, you can just feel the crowd coming alive. It’s like a slow rise in noise. Matt Martin hits a guy, boom! The building roars. Then Clutterbuck hits a guy, now it’s deafening. They thrive off that fourth line.
Which Goalie Performs Better?
In his biggest workload ever, Thomas Greiss (.925) had sterling, bound-to-come-back-to-earth numbers through the first three quarters of the season. His shoring up the backup position was a necessary ingredient to the Isles returning to the playoffs.
But his regression to closer to normal coincided roughly with Halak going down with injury. Too much work? Too much pressure? The latter is unlikely, the former is a possibility.
Roberto Luongo, meanwhile, is still very good (.922) at age 37 and appeared in 62 games. You could argue he stole one of the Panthers' wins over the Isles, which ended in a circus shootout where neither goalie could stop a puck. He's playoff seasoned, he's in form, and it would be so Islanders for another Milbury error to still haunt them in 2016.
It's a playoff cliche, but given the Panthers' other strengths, Greiss probably has to be the better goalie for the Isles to get four wins.
Does Age Catch up to Jagr in the Playoffs?
Jaromir Jagr is amazing, full stop. Still, at age 44. But there is a theory that the elder and destined Hall of Famer has trouble at this age with the tighter blanket checking and randomly disappearing officiating of the playoffs. In 33 playoff games since returning to the NHL in his 40s, he has one goal (albeit on loads of shots). He still racks up assists, but maybe, just maybe the playoffs are no longer his area to shine.
Not that it matters all that much; the Panthers are deep -- and his linemates dangerous -- even if he's not scoring.