It’s so hard to know what to expect: Teams have only played one exhibition game each — for the Islanders, steady and victorious; for the Panthers, deflating and disastrous. They’re coming back from a long layoff, playing under quarantine-light conditions, in a strange rink, with no fans and no family.
In a way it will be a “pure” tournament, as Barry Trotz has said, because players are healthy and stars are not ground down from a long regular season.
Lighthouse Hockey: Which Panthers benefited the most from the shutdown?
Litter Box Cats: The Panthers have a few guys that are healthy now that were not back in March. Rookie defenseman Riley Stillman, who has become a regular in the lineup, missed Florida’s last regular season game, a big 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues.
Veteran center Brian Boyle, who hasn’t played since February 1, will also be back, which is a sneaky good thing for the Cats, as they have a pretty good record with him in the lineup and are more difficult to play against.
And two forwards that most likely won’t see action against the Islanders, Dryden Hunt and rookie Owen Tippett, who led the Panthers’ farm team in scoring, have recovered from their injuries and earned spots on the expanded roster, giving the team some quality depth in case the injury bug bites in Toronto.
That’s the physical side of things, to better answer your question I’ll include the mental side and say the players that benefitted most might be Sergei Bobrovsky, who was also injured at the pause, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.
Bobrovsky had a pretty rough go of it in his first season as the Panthers starter, finding out the hard way that defense in Sunrise is a lot different than defense in Columbus, and needed the time off to recharge; Barkov only missed three games this season, but never really seemed like he was 100% his usual self, due to a lingering back or lower-body injury perhaps; and Huberdeau, after tearing it up for chunks of the season, was in a pretty bad slump, with just two assists in the last eight games before the pause. These players should all be raring to go, and hopefully at the top of their respective games, once the postseason begins.
LHH: Looks like Erik Haula’s production dipped in his limited time before the shutdown. Just luck, or was he still finding a role on his new team?
LBC: Yes, Haula only had two assists in the seven games he played with the Panthers after the trade, but I’d chalk a lot of that up to joining a new team, and on top of that, joining a team that was playing its worst hockey of the season, coupled with the Cats buckling down more defensively once he arrived to try to get back on track and into a playoff spot.
The Panthers went 3-2-2 with Haula in the lineup and only gave up 15 goals (and another in a shootout loss) in those seven games, which is a lot less than they were giving up beforehand. So, despite the lack of stats, I think he was having a positive effect.
LHH: The Panthers terrified me in 2016 (Thanks be to Greiss.). Are they even better now? Has Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad continued to improve?
LBC: Hmm, going to have to go with the dreaded yes and no answer here. Those three players have definitely improved since 2016, especially Barkov and Huberdeau, who are now star-caliber players, and Ekblad had a very solid season for the Cats this year.
However, from an overall standpoint, I don’t think this year’s squad is a better “team” than the 2016 edition. I think the Panthers have a lot of talent, more than they did in 2016, but there are defensive and effort issues that continue to plague the club.
LHH: What concerns you about the Islanders?
LBC: I’ve heard a lot of varying opinions on how the games will go once we get restarted, with some former players and pundits saying they think things will be more high-scoring like early regular season games tend to be, while others opine that the return to play will favor teams that have strong defensive systems and the ability to win low-scoring games (winning low scoring games wasn’t something the Panthers did much of this year).
I tend to fall in that second category, which is a strength of Coach Trotz and the Islanders. While there has been considerable turnover since 2016, I am expecting a series much like that one the two teams played four years ago. The Islanders seem to have a knack for keeping Florida’s big guns silenced, as we witnessed earlier this season with the Panthers only scoring a grand total of four goals in the three losses to the Isles.
I am crossing my fingers that Semyon Varlamov gets the call in net. Not because Varlamov isn’t a quality goalie, but because I fear a repeat performance from Thomas Greiss that sends the Panthers packing again
LHH: How do you think this series turns out?
LBC: Originally, I saw this series as being extremely hard-fought and going four or five games, with the Panthers’ advantage in firepower carrying them through, but after seeing in the exhibition game against Tampa Bay that the Cats brought all of their warts with them to Toronto, I am calling this one for the Islanders in three or four games. The only way the Cats win this one is if Joel Quenneville throws contracts/pedigree to the wind and starts Chris Driedger over Sergei Bobrovsky and leaves huge liability Mike Matheson in the press box where he belongs.
Thanks to Todd, and cheers to the LBC crew! The series begins Saturday at 4 p.m. EDT, which is a late start as far as this series is concerned.