The bottom line is no different than last year at this time heading into Game 7 against the Washington Capitals: The Islanders haven't won a playoff series since 1993, something that weighs more on the fans who've followed them through the fallow years than the players who in some cases weren't even born yet during Al Arbour's last storybook run.
Different now, however, is that the Isles have two chances to close out a series (though they'd prefer not to tempt fate by needing that second one). Rather than a sense of building something, there is a sense of last hurrah together for some of the team's long-serving players who will be free agents or otherwise depart this summer. Rather than limp into Game 7 with major injuries to half the blueline, they bring a close-to-ideal group of six into the game.
And rather than face the task on the road in front of a hostile crowd, this year they have a chance to win at home -- where the atmosphere has been great -- and put an exclamation point on the transition from the Coliseum era to the Brooklyn one.
Certainly they handled their last opportunity at the Coliseum as you'd hope, defeating the Capitals in Game 6 last year to send the series back to Washington.
How to Watch: Islanders vs. Panthers Game 6
Sunday, April 24, 7 p.m. EDT | Game 6, Eastern Conference Round 1
Brooklyn's [ingloriously sponsored] Center
TV: MSG+, SUN (local) | NBCSN (U.S.), CBC, TVAS (Canada)
Live stream at NBC Live Extra and Rogers GameCentre
Litter Box Cats: Panthers blog
Win tonight, and those players and their tight group will feel they have gotten somewhere, that the many years of rebuild have paid off, if only in the modest step of making the team a regular playoff entrant and demon-slaying series winner.
Lose, and everything gets scary -- again -- as they'd have to win Game 7 in Florida.
No team has won two games in a row in this series, every game has been close, and two have required the brutal coin flip of playoff overtime.
The Panthers have been the better team, in terms of how to play to increase your odds of winning over the long haul. The Islanders have had the better goaltending and shown that both teams, as is so often the case, are close enough where the series can turn on things like an AHL callup's double-overtime goal and the starter-worthy play of a career backup goalie.
Roberto Luongo and Thomas Greiss will guard the nets as they have all series.
Otherwise, all lineup decisions are being kept close to the vest, though you have to figure Jack Capuano won't change his after the Game 5 win, even though it took double-overtime, even though the Isles were outplayed in most of it. That would mean:
Alan Quine - John Tavares - Kyle Okposo
Nikolay Kulemin - Frans Nielsen - Josh Bailey
Shane Prince - Brock Nelson - Steve Bernier
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck
Nick Leddy - Travis Hamonic
Calvin de Haan - Johnny Boychuk
Thomas Hickey - Marek Zidlicky
The Panthers will be without Nick Bjugstad, but Vincent Trochek's return to the lineup in Game 5 indicates they will pick up right where they left off with wave after wave of extended zone time from their top six.
The question* is who slots into the bottom of Florida's lineup after Bjugstad's absence, with possible candidates being Shawn Thornton and Greg McKegg. Logan Shaw was on wing last game, but he's well regarded and could center the third or fourth line:
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen - Vincent Trocheck - Reilly Smith
Jiri Hudler - Derek MacKenzie* - Teddy Purcell
Garrett Wilson - Logan Shaw/Greg McKegg* - Shawn Thornton/Shaw*
Dmitry Kulikov - Aaron Ekblad
Brian Campbell - Erik Gudbranson
Michael Matheson - Alex Petrovic
"We're excited. For us it's just staying in the moment & staying composed. We have a great opportunity tonight." pic.twitter.com/okqCPP5JAx— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) April 24, 2016
"The louder and crazier it gets tonight, the more we'll embrace it." -Travis Hamonic pic.twitter.com/tJIMiJ918u— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) April 24, 2016