Two teams who could not be more different with a couple of head coaches that have a few years of experience going up against each other from their days in the Central Division. The Panthers, coached by Joel Quenneville are a high flying offensive team that loves to score goals where as the Islanders are a classic example of a Lou Lamoriello defensive minded team that is perfectly coached by Barry Trotz. I guess we will truly find out the truth to the age old question of what really wins games; offense or defense?
The Panthers offense is led by the duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, both of whom are elite NHL players that have game breaking ability. Hoffman, Dadonov and Acciari were all 20 goal scorers and guys like Brett Connolly and Frank Vatrano were both on pace to do so while adding a physical element to this roster. The Panthers finished sixth in the league in Goals per game (3.30) primarily creating offense off the rush with their run and gun style.
The Islanders on the other hand are the exact opposite and play perhaps the perfect style to suppress this Florida offense. This team is undoubtedly led by Barzal along with a compliment of very good two-way players in Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. The thing that separates the Islanders forwards from most teams is that they have a ton of depth and their lines are built for a specific purpose. This team has had one of the best fourth lines for quite some time in Cizikas and Martin both bring a strong physical element and a perfect guys to get the momentum back for the team.
It would be difficult not to pick the Panthers here, they are the better offensive group but it comes at a cost as we will see.
As we switch gears to the defensive side of these rosters, we will see that some things don’t change. The Panthers have the more well known names and the better point production from the back end, but they give up goals at an alarming rate. Florida ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in terms of Shots on Goal Against per game and they were tied for the third worst Goals Against per game (3.25). The Panthers are led by former first overall pick Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle who are both 50-60 point guys in a regular season but they are not the most defensively responsible.
The Islanders may not have brand names on defense but they have a couple names that people need to start taking notice of. Leddy and Boychuck have been the leaders of this defensive core for a few years and the team also traded for Andy Greene at the deadline to bring in some more veteran leadership. This team also has a nice mix of youthful skill in guys like Devon Toews, Noah Dobson and Ryan Pulock, but more on the latter later.
While you might prefer the name brands, I prefer the Islanders defensemen especially with the added benefit of playing in a Barry Trotz system.
If I were to tell you to pick between a two-time Vezina winning goalie or a pair of goalies working in a time share with only one Jennings trophy to their name combined who would you take? Would you be even more surprised to find out that the Vezina winning goaltender was a part of the team that allowed the fourth most Goal Against this season? Where it be a by product of the system or a down season for Sergei Bobrovsky, he will need to get his game together quick because the Panthers are giving him $10.5M per season right now.
The Islanders on the other hand have had back to back seasons of success rolling with their time share strategy allowing the sixth fewest goals this season (190 against). Both Varlamov and Greiss definite greatly from their coaches strategy but there is still something to be said about being the last line of defense on a team like this. By the time hockey get’s going again I believe that it will be Varlamov starting in Game 1 but it goes without saying that he probably has a bit of a short leash with Greiss backing him up.
In terms of outright skill alone I take Bobrovsky out of the three every single time, which is why this decision is much closer than it needs to be, but at the end of the day the Islanders goalies have to be given the win here.
Florida’s tenth ranked Power Play unit (21.9%) is led in large part by the incredibly dangerous unit that ranks as top in the league as a five man unit (image below). This team is top heavy as mentioned earlier, so when Quenneville puts they’re top five guys out there on a consistent basis in this series, it will be a nightmare for the Islanders to contain. Their Penalty Kill ranks middle of the pack with a success rate of 78.5% which is a little bit surprising given how bad pretty much all of their defensive numbers have been thus far.
As you would expect, the Islanders do not have the firepower on their Power Play that the Panthers do, scoring on only 17.3% of their chances (24th in the league) but the good news is, is that they take penalties at a far lesser rate than the Panthers, potentially limiting the opposition’s opportunities. The Islanders have a slightly better penalty kill percentage wise at 80.7% giving up the fourth fewest Power Play Goals Against in the league, but as mentioned, they don’t take many so their success rate is not great.
It is clear advantage Florida in my opinion because of how lethal that top unit is, and I am sure that we will see them together taking up the majority of the Power Play time.
Florida Panthers: Erik Haula
Haula came over from the Hurricanes in a deal for Vincent Trochek at the trade deadline (with a couple other pieces) which cause a bit of a stir with some people. Haula has proven to be a solid depth player during a couple of deep playoff runs in the past, the most recent with the Golden Knights in 2016-17 where he averaged close to a half point per game. It is also important to point out that Haula got off to one of the hottest starts in the league this past season putting up seven goals in his first nine games. If Haula can provide this team with much needed secondary scoring as a guy who plays a shut down role, it could be the finishing touch the Panthers need to move on.
New York Islanders: Ryan Pulock
The Islanders 2013 first round pick has developed into quite the defenseman living up to the expectations that come with the draft capital invested in him. In his third full season, Pulock was on pace to break his career high in goals, assists and points while still being one of the team’s most reliable defenders in his own zone. As mentioned in the defense segment, the Islanders relied pretty heavily on their big two, but if a guy like Pulock can help offensively in any way, whether its even strength or on the man advantage, his secondary scoring help will be a huge advantage to a team that does not score a ton of goals.
Forward – Panthers
Defense – Islanders
Goaltender – Islanders
Special Teams – Panthers
X-Factor – Islanders
Winner: (7) New York Islanders in 5
I really want the Panthers to win, but I have to go with my gut on this one and take the Islanders. I think that the Barry Trotz factor is too much to ignore because of this team is build perfectly for his system. That may sound like a dumb thing to say considering he is going up a three time Stanley Cup winner in Quenneville, but I am a firm believer that defense wins championships.