The New York Islanders' 5-4 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 1 was so 2015-16 Islanders, it was as if the script was written by the fans who've lived through the travails of this teasing, strange season.
The Isles weren't terrible but weren't great over the first two periods, where they showed some disturbing lapses yet hung around in ways that pre-2013 we would've called "gritty" and impressive "never say die" efforts.
But it's 2016, and though the Islanders are widely seen as slight (and justifiable) underdogs in this series, we don't feel like they should be underdogs. They should be taking a step forward. Their talent should have them putting the scare into opponents the way they did last season, and the way the Panthers' top two lines did last night.
That the Isles played that way to keep it tied after two periods and then pull ahead in the third was like so many wins in 2015-16: They "found a way," they turned it on in the clutch, they left us both thrilled and frustrated.
It's great that they can dial in and win games in the third period after drifting in the first 40 minutes -- really it is, it breeds eternal hope after you've already pulled your hair out. It's just not a sustainable way to win over the long haul.
1. Thomas Greiss and the Top Line for the Win
The top line did its job, in possession and production. John Tavares was the noticeable one with dangerous plays all night, but his goal came from great plays by both Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, and their goals set up by Tavares still required expert marksmanship to score upstairs on Roberto Luongo. Tavares also won nine of his 13 faceoffs, by far best on the team.
And then you had Thomas Greiss, who honestly can't be faulted for the first three goals. He was scrambly early but man did he face some shot volume. And every time the game was at a critical juncture -- trailing by a goal, or having just gained the lead -- Greiss stood strong, picking up shots through traffic and making some excellent arm saves.
His 42 shots excuse some jittery play early, the Barclays bounce on the third goal, and not getting enough of the still-tough shot on Reilly's second goal to make it 5-4.
2. The Panthers Top Six is Scary as Advertised
We got a taste of this last year and this season too, as you saw the Panthers young talent coming along in flashes the way the Islanders youngsters did last year, and you thought, "this team could be something."
Well now they're all firing at the same time and it's terrifying. Jaromir Jagr is Jaromir Jagr, 44-year-old demigod. Aleksander Barkov could be the end of me. Reilly Smith is the latest young player to make the Boston braintrust look like idiots or saboteurs. Some noteworthy stats from Game 1:
- Smith - 8 shots, 2 goals
- Barkov - 6 shots (8 attempts), 74% on faceoffs
- Jokinen - 1 shot, 3 points
- Bjugstad - 4 shots
- Jagr - 5 shots
This is all without 25-goal man Vincent Trocheck, who is expected to return later in the series. (Granted, the Islanders are without Anders Lee, but he won't return later in the series.)
If I'm Gerard Gallant I tell my team, "Play exactly the same way, except don't do stupid things like the sloppy line change on the Strome goal and the brain fart on the Nelson goal, and we'll win. Their goalie isn't stopping 42 shots tonight."
3. The Isles Third Line Kind of Worked. They Should Use It.
Yay for Jack Capuano or the staff or the Bridgeport informants! In a surprise, Alan Quine was used, and at center on a center-heavy team, for his first-ever NHL playoff game after playing just two regular season games since his recall last week.
Quine was good, and so was his winger Ryan Strome, who scored the winner on a rebound after Quine used his speed to create a scoring chance. It was risky to use Quine to fill the center void created by moving Nielsen to the wing on the top line, but for one night at least it looked insightful.
But they were the least used line. Strome, Quine and Shane Prince got around 10 minutes of ice time, two minutes less than the "fourth" line and five minutes less than Josh Bailey at even strength alone.
4. The Second Line Was a Problem. They Should Change It.
It's telling that the only significant contribution from the Islanders second line came when Brock Nelson scored off a turnover feed from Ryan Strome, who isn't on that line.
Nelson's hard shot from the high slot was excellent, and we've seen him execute it beautifully for many of his 26 goals this season. But the rest of his game was, like much of this season, not all that promising. Worse were his wingers; Nikolay Kulemin and Josh Bailey were mostly absent and made unconvincing decisions when they did briefly get the puck.
5. How Unlikely Was This Win?
In one sense, historic:
I don't know about you, but I was both mad every time they fell behind yet also thinking, "They can totally still win this, if they..."
...if they, well, pick their $h*t up.
- So, Greiss won the first goalie battle with Luongo, eh?
- Bones to pick: The entire approach after gaining a two-goal lead, but -- even conceding every team will do some prevent in that situation -- the late power play and the final minute in particular.
- Johnny Boychuk had a bad night. I want him back with Nick Leddy.
- Travis Hamonic looked good and healthy. Can we get him back with Calvin de Haan?
- Ryan Pulock had plenty of rookie moments.
- Gerard Gallant's just-scored-against face is the best face.
- Good showing by Isles fans in Florida. But sounded like fans of both teams were dead-nervous-quiet for the final 10 minutes. Too much tension and nerves in the air.