We have noted how similar the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders are on the ice, and what would have been a 1-1-1 season record in the old NHL is perfect evidence of that. But beyond the on-ice stuff, the Islanders and Panthers share much in common as much-maligned franchises that have been the butt of far too many jokes about lack of fans in seats, and poor ownership. The Panthers seem to be well on their way out of that era, and the Islanders have been working to do the same. With that in mind, it is impossible to detect any NHL Playoff hatred at this point between fans of the two franchises, and if anything, there is an actual mutual understanding and sympathy for one another. You hear a lot of, "well, if we get beat, I hope they go a long way..." type of sentiment.
I will take a moment to add that I attended a Panthers vs. Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum roughly three years ago. The building was falling apart, yet awe inspiring with its history and banners. Sitting in the "nose-bleeds" we got a real dose of hardcore Isles fans, with collective chants and actual songs known by all that they would break out easily and at will. As I was wearing a Panthers jersey, I got many compliments on the way out of the building that the Panthers were doing things right in their rebuild and would be a force down the road. Good folks out at Nassau.
With all this in mind, I contacted Dominik over at Lighthouse Hockey and we exchanged three questions prior to game one:
JC: Lets start with the team comparison. At 5-on-5, the Islanders finished the regular season 11th in the league in goals for per game, while the Panthers finished 8th. Flipping that, the Islanders were 13th in goals-against per game, while the Panthers were 7th in the league in goals-against per-game. The Isles power play was ranked 17th in the league, while the Cats PK was ranked 24th. Flipping that, Florida's power play was ranked 23rd, while the Isles PK came in at 4th in the league. What (if anything) causes the Islanders concern about this Panthers squad in a 7-game series? Are there match-up problems or is it looking like an even battle between the two teams?
Dominik: The overall concern is that the Panthers have been the slightly better team over the course of the season, while the Islanders have only on rare occasions replicated the sharp, crisp team they were in 2014-15. As far as matchups, it might be in goaltending, where you could see Roberto Luongo being the difference, even thoughThomas Greiss has had a career year. With most of the metrics being close or in the Panthers' favor, you have to think the Isles need to win the special teams battle -- by continuing their stingy penalty kill and by getting lucky on their power play - in order to come out on top.
JC: Both teams enter the series with injuries to key players. Dale Tallon stated in an interview this week that Erik Gudbranson will play in game one, and that Vincent Trocheck is day-to-day and could play later in round one. Those were the Panthers two major injuries of concern (Willie Mitchell and Steven Kampfer are the other notable injuries). What have injuries done to this Islanders team's chances, and do they have the depth to overcome them?
Dominik: Greiss is in the conversation because Jaroslav Halak is out for the series. Travis Hamonic looks like he'll be back by Game 1, though whether he's close to 100% or rushing himself because he's chomping at the bit after missing last year's playoffs is an open question from the outside. Mikhail Grabovski is out and his loss hurts in the depth and possession department, although it's likely concussion symptoms have made him a weaker version of his old self this season.The Isles' depth on the blueline is helped by rookie Ryan Pulock developing and Jack Capuano apparently starting to trust him. However, if another injury happens or a bad game causes Capuano to turn to Brian Strait, that spells trouble and a thousand angry rants from Isles fans.
JC: Both of these franchises have had recent struggles at the ticket gate, and improvement this season. The Isles have been a somewhat more consistent playoff team recently than the Panthers. There is no question that this season has been great for Florida in rebuilding the fan base, and the playoff appearance will do great things for the Cats' bottom line and future no matter what occurs in the first round. What about the Islanders though? Will this playoff appearance energize the fan base, or would the team need to hit the second round for fans to overcome cynicism and gain excitement?
Dominik: You're unlikely to find a fan, be they pro-Brooklyn or strictly Nassau-nostalgic, who didn't think a playoff appearance was a must for the team's first year at Barclays Center. The move was controversial (but inevitable, thanks to Long Island political dysfunction) and traumatic for many fans, it was a major adjustment for players used to a quick drive to the Coliseum, and it was a rocky year from a PR perspective thanks to the basketball-specific issues Barclays presents and Brett Yormark's tendency to market-speak in a way that was tone deaf to fans who followed the team for as many as 43 years and suffered through a lot of ownership and venue horror over the previous 20.
So, making the playoffs was holding serve. Having a lofty home record was a bonus. But their first series win since 1993 is essential to keeping fans excited about the direction of the team. Win or lose, the fanbase is definitely alive and excited; they don't need a series win for that. However even if the Isles win, it won't change specific complaints rabid fans have about the team, be they behind the bench or in the arena manager's box.
We thank Dominik for his time and answers. Unfortunately for Panther fans this series looks on paper like a very competitive and close one. Feel free throughout the series to stop by Lighthouse Hockey to check on all things blue and orange (and give my brother a shout out as a frequent reader over there!). Also, follow Domink on Twitter at @LHHockey.