The New York Islanders might have found a match-up to start the 2015-16 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it’s not going to be a walk in the park.
The New York Islanders are set to open their 2015-16 Stanley Cup Playoff run against the Atlantic Division champions Florida Panthers on Thursday. The cynics out there got the matchup they wanted and avoided the Pittsburgh Penguins, but as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
Going into the stretch of the 2015-16 regular season many Islanders fans and pundits called for the Islanders to approach playoff seeding strategically and lose a few matches down the stretch in order to finish in the first wild-card spot in the East.
The argument was that falling into the first wild-card slot placed the Islanders in the Atlantic playoff bracket which had a seemingly easier road to the Eastern Conference finals. The Isles would effectively avoid a match up with the Penguins in the first round and the Washington Capitals in the second round.
Playing against Atlantic opposition would be easier. The Lightning are missing Captain Steven Stamkos and defensive stalwarts Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman. The Red Wings are a shell of their former self and just squeaked into the post-season because of a late season Boston slip up.
But to get to either of these teams the Isles have to go through the Panthers first.
The Cats have Claws
The Panthers are not to be underestimated. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear in the title it’s going to be repeated here. The Panthers are first in the Atlantic through merit; it wasn’t some charity that was just handed to them so that attendance levels in Sunrise, Florida could reach respectable levels, even though it has.
In terms of scoring, the Panthers are 8th in the league in goals-for per game with 2.83. The Panthers top six all hit at least 50 points this season. Unlike the Islanders, who have but three forward with at least 50 points in John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen.
The Panthers are also 24th in goals against allowing a paltry 2.44 goals-against per game. It helps when you’re 37 year starting goalie is showing no sign of slowing down posting a solid .922 SV% and 2.35 GAA over the course of the season.
Not Down and Out
The New York Islanders aren’t too far behind the Panthers in scoring, the Isles ranked 11th with 2.77 goals-for per game. Unlike the Panthers, the Isles have conceded more and rank 18th in goals-against per game.
But one area the Isles hold a very distinct advantage is on the special teams.
Throughout the season, the Islanders penalty kill has been one of the best in the league, ranking 2nd in the league for power play goals against and 4th in terms of penalty kill efficiency with 84.5%. The Islanders are also one of the least penalized teams in the NHL. Being short-handed a total of 232 times, good for 27th in the league according to ESPN.
Not only are the Islanders highly efficient on the penalty kill, but they are seldom in a man down situation.
The Panthers, however, are in the bottom 10, in terms of power play efficiency. On 278 opportunities they’ve scored a total of 47 times. Special teams often define a playoff series. This series will be no different.
On the power-play, the Islanders are marginally more efficient than their counterparts from Sunrise. In the regular season, the Islanders had an efficiency of 18.3% compared to the Panthers 16.9%. Consider that the Panthers are in the top 10 for most penalized in the NHL and that advantage becomes all the more important. All still according to ESPN.
Getting your Wish
Islander’s fans wanted to face the Florida Panthers in the first round, and they got what they wished for. Certainly the Panthers are seemingly an easier match up than the Pittsburgh Penguins. But, again the Panthers are no pushover.
It’s easy to say that the Islanders pair well against the Panther, or at least more so than the Penguins. The two teams have similar regular season record and are separate by marginal differences in scoring stats. But the Islanders hold the advantage by having significantly better special teams.
A playoff series is won by whatever advantage can be exploited. The post-season is a grind and the team that can exploit whatever advantage it holds generally wins. Taking advantage of the Panthers tendency for taking penalties can play in the Islanders favour.
The advantage might be small, but a small advantage is all it takes to win a series. And getting past the Panthers to the promise of a weaker Lightning team and a struggling Red Wings team is exactly what the fans wanted.