The first round series between the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders went 6 games, but almost 23 periods of hockey were played between the two teams, as Games 5 and 6 became double-overtime marathons. When Kevin and I took a look at the two teams coming into the series, one thing stood out, and that was parity: despite the Panthers division title in the Atlantic, and the Islanders slide into a wild card position, the two teams were darn near even in most categories. This resulted in a fantastically even series, with 3 overtime games, and every game but one resulting in a one-goal difference. As has been the case in this year's playoffs, some strange things happened: the Panthers led the majority of the time, yet were defeated 4-2 in the series; the Panthers out-corsi-ed and out-possessed, and out-shot the Islanders by a wide margin, yet lost; and a career NHL backup goalie outplayed a future hall-of-fame netminder (who also played well).
The "even" nature of the two teams extends to recent histories as well. The Islanders and Panthers both have 20-year histories of downtrodden teams, doormat results that have left them the butt of insults, calls for relocation, and fans who have grown sizable chips on their shoulders. While this led to a great deal of mutual commiseration and respect between the majority of the teams fans, a poorly officiated series also led to a massive amount of anger from Panther fans.
As that officiating debacle was part of the headlines after Game 6, and has been one of the hallmarks of the series, we will start here.
Chris Lee and Dan O'Rourke:
Remember those two names, because they were the major talking points all over the NHL press on Monday, which is merely another way of pointing out that the referees in Game 6 became a feature of the game. The day after saw Pierre McGuire, Matthew Barnaby, and others in the NHL press corps offer no excuse for the lack of a call on Matt Martin for tripping Vincent Trocheck with little time left on the clock in the 3rd period. This was followed by a slightly less controversial no call for a trip next to an empty net. The Islanders would take possession of that puck, rush down ice and score to tie the game with little time left on the clock. It can be seen here, along with commentary at CBS Sports. As NHL radio analyst Matthew Barnaby said about Florida fans in the aftermath: they have "a right to be pissed." Pierre McGuirre pointed out that while working another game in the series he saw less egregious trips called as penalties and pointed out a disturbing lack of consistency by NHL officials in the playoffs.
The trip should have been called. There was no excuse not to call it. A fair call in that instance likely saves the game for the Panthers. It's outrageous. It's a reason to loudly "boo" these officials every time they work in Florida (like we used to with Kerry Fraser when he worked in Philadelphia when I was growing up). Maybe it altered the series, maybe not, we will never know as there will be no Game 7, because the result of the "no-call" was an Islanders goal that put the game in overtime, and that the Islanders ultimately won.
All we can do is move along and watch to see if either of these officials work more games in the playoffs (they should not).
Let's finish this topic that has angered so many.
The officials were mostly terrible in the series, but aside from the no-call discussed above, did they cost the Panthers? The Cats went 0-3 on the power-play in Game 6, and 0-1 in Game 5. Over the six-game series, they went 2 for 15 on the power-play, good for a 13% conversion rate, about 3% lower than their season average of 16%. We knew going into the series that the power play would be a problem. In my pre-series look at the team's numbers, we discussed it:
The Islanders have the 4th ranked penalty kill in the NHL, with an 84.5% efficiency rate. Their kill will match a Panther power play that is 23rd in the league, clipping along at 16.9%. That does not bode well for the Panthers' man-advantage opportunities. The Cats aren't likely to get many power plays either, as the Isles take only an average of 8.76 penalty minutes per game, good for 25th (or 5th best) in the league.
In the comments sections of articles on LBC all season, posters were noting that the power play was costing the team and that it would continue to do so, and it did. But that's not yet what we are discussing here- we are discussing whether the officials cost us--beyond the Trocheck no-call. To get a better idea, we'll look at the Islanders numbers. The Islanders went 5 for 21 on the power play, good for a 23% conversion rate. That was above the Islanders season average of 18%, and for the Panthers, below their season average of 79.5% effectiveness on the penalty kill.
The Cats took roughly 10 minutes in penalties on average per game this season, one of the worst rates in the league, but committed an average of 3.5 penalties per game (6.5 minutes) in the playoffs, so were under their season average. The Islanders took only about 8 minutes in penalties per game this season- one of the best rates in the league.They committed an average of 2.5 penalties per game (4.5 minutes) during this series, also below their season average.
So here is where we get into an effect- two of the Islanders power-play goals were scored on 5-on-3 opportunities. In Game 3, with Alex Petrovic in the box for boarding at 4:43 of the 2nd period, Jussi Jokinen was called for holding at the 5:08 mark. The Islanders scored on the ensuing 5-on-3 power-play (Ryan Pulock goal). The call on Jokinen was questionable for a playoff game, in light of everything else that was being let go during the series, but it's not something that was outrageous, we can't complain that it cost us the game. But things got worse later in that game.
At the 16:12 mark of the 2nd period Dmitry Kulikov was sent to the sin bin for a clipping penalty. There are just no, if-ands-or-buts about it, the clipping call was terrible as Kulikov did not contact Matt Martin at or below the knees. The Islanders scored on that power-play (Frans Nielsen goal) to tie the game and send it to overtime. But that was not all.
That was also the game where a quick whistle (perhaps the kind that could have saved Tavares from scoring the game-tying goal in Game 6 where the puck was equally loose from Roberto Luongo... which would have been the wrong result, but I digress) deprived the Panthers of an early 1st period goal on a loose puck the referees lost sight of. Not many folks in the media talked about the waived off 1st period goal, because the fuss was all about a correctly re-called offsides goal by Jonathan Huberdeau. The Panthers lost the game in overtime. Referees Chris Rooney and Francois St. Laurent did have an impact on the outcome of Game 3, with a too quick whistle and a blown clipping call.
In Game 4, the Islanders again scored on the power play, just as the first penalty expired in the 5-on-3. At the 17:43 point of the 2nd period, Aleksander Barkov was called for a retaliation slash that broke an Islanders' player stick as the play moved away from the goal (something that would not be called in Game 6 as Michael Matheson was left holding a fractured twig). At 19:04, Dmitry Kulikov took a tripping penalty, again putting the Islanders on a 5-on-3, and John Tavares lit the lamp just as the Barkov penalty ended. The Panthers won that game 2-1, so it did not cost the team in the series.
Net outcome? The Panthers were indeed hurt by the now infamous no-call in Game 6. The series ended with that headline, it's a big deal. But the Panthers were also hurt by a waived off-goal due to an overly quick whistle and more than debatable, flat-out incorrect clipping call, the sum of which cost the Cats a goal-for, and a goal-against, in a one-goal overtime loss.
Conclusion: you can be frustrated by a lack of calls, or too many calls in the games. You can vent about officiating in Game 5 in Sunrise, or Game 4 in Brooklyn, but those were both what has become the NHL norm of piss-poor officiating you see throughout the playoffs. It's hard to point to those games and say the officials cost the Panthers the game. But you can make a viable claim that the officiating in Games 3 and 6 did actually impact the Panthers, as a no-call, a quick whistle, and a blown call all led to goals scored or taken away. But you have to also acknowledge that John Tavares scored 5 goals in the series, only one of which was on the power play, that the Panthers got an overtime penalty shot they could not convert on, and had difficulty scoring on Greiss as the series went on. The impact in Game 3 and 6 was real, but was only one factor.
The Panthers played great defensive hockey in Games 4, 5, and 6:
The calls made an impact because it became a very tightly played series as it went on. Over the course of Games 4, 5, and 6, the Panthers allowed 5 goals against, for an average of 1.66 goals-against-per game. That was after the first 3 games where the Cats surrendered 10 goals against, for an average of 3.33 goals-against per game. Over those 3 games, two of which went deep into double-overtime, the Panthers gave up an average 9.23 shots per period, which would work out to about 27.67 shots-per game in a 3-period game. The Islanders (as we noted in the pre-series metrics article) had an average of 29.4 shots-for per game, so for the last three games of the series, the Cats held them below their season average. Further, the Panthers surrendered an average of 29.5 shots-against per game on the season. Likewise, the Cats held the Islanders below their season average for shots-against per-game in those 3 pivotal games.
This is important, because over the first three games of the series, the Panthers allowed the Islanders an average of 35.66 shots against per game (including the single-overtime Game 3), or 10.7 shots-against per period. The Cats tightened up on the defensive side of things, making all 3 of the final games one-goal wins or losses.It must also be noted that the two-teams had an equal number of shots against in Game 3, the overtime loss in Brooklyn.
The last line of defense, Roberto Luongo posted save percentages over Games 4, 5, and 6 respectively of .963, .952, and .961. Some things start to come into focus here. The officiating problem in Game 6 was amplified because it was a one-goal, tight defensive game; Ultimately, the loss in Game 5 stemmed from a poorly-timed Derek MacKenzie penalty in the second overtime; singular defensive breakdowns in tight games were catastrophic-- as they always are in the playoffs; and the bigger problem was the lack of scoring.
Special Teams weren't so special:
We kind of stepped into this issue in the officiating effect sections above, but there is a bit more to note here. We noted above that the Islanders power play was converting at a rate above their season average, and the Panthers penalty kill was below. But, take out the two 5-on-3 penalties the Panthers got scored on in Games 3 and 4 (because defending the 5-on-3 is a near impossible task for most teams) and the Islanders were a more pedestrian 3 for 19 on the standard power play. That equates to a 15% conversion rate, below the Isles season average of 18%, and a kill rate for the Panthers of 85%, above the Panthers season average on the kill of 79.5%.
In Game 3, the Islanders won the game in overtime on the power play, with MacKenzie in the box for the aforementioned slashing penalty- that was the correct call. The Islanders tied that game with a goal on the Kulikov clipping penalty. In Game 1, the Islanders scored their only other 5-on-4 goal, while Gudbranson was in the box serving a hooking penalty. Those were impactful 5-on-4 PK failures.
Yet, the penalty kill was- at 5-on-4- somewhat effective. The clipping call on Kulikov was a costly referee error, in a game full of such costly errors. Other than that though, it is difficult to find a situation where a bad call against a Panther player cost the Cats a game. Even the rather ridiculous call against Huberdeau in Game 6 for cross-checking did not cost the Panthers the game.
The power play was a whole other issue, and a bad one. As noted previously, the Cats converted at a rate of 13%, below their season average of 16.9%. The Panthers scored just 2 power-play goals, and one of those was in Game 1 of the series (the other was in Game 4). Further, Aleksander Barkov had a penalty shot in Game 5 that he could not convert on. Perhaps we should term that 2 for 16.
With every game except for Game 2 decided by one goal, the lack of power play effectiveness undoubtedly cost the Panthers. Further, there is no denying the fact that we cannot say with any degree of certainty that if the Cats had been given the calls many wanted, they would have had a great impact on the game. As late as Game 6, the Panthers were scrambling on a late power play to prevent a short-handed opportunity for the Islanders. The Cats had 16 power play or penalty shot opportunities to put a goal on the board that could alter the course of a one-goal game, and on 14 of those, they failed.
If we were in the Mississippi Delta, this team would sing: "the 3rd line blues"
There is an adage as old as Dave or JoeRockhead that 3rd and 4th lines win playoff series, and the Kings and Blackhawks have most certainly provided ample evidence of that fact. The theory, which too often becomes reality, is that the teams in a playoff series will have their top-2 lines cancel one another out, leaving the franchise with the better bottom-6 a winner. It's tried and true.
Coming into this series, the Panthers depth was considered a strength, despite the Islander effective 4th line. By Game 5, I called for the team to scratch Jiri Hudler and his stat line shows nothing but futility in the series. The depth we thought the Panthers had evaporated.
For the advanced stats folks, Hudler ran a Corsi For % of 43.3%, and a Corsi for Relative % of -17.5. He only had 5 shots on goal the entire series despite playing an average of 14:56 minutes per game, and getting deployed 51.2% of the time in the offensive zone to start shifts. He had one assist (in Game 1) and still went -2 (meaning he was on the ice for at least 3 goals against to counteract the + he got on the Purcell goal he assisted on at even strength). He was not only not contributing offensively, he was costing the team defensively.
On the other side, Teddy Purcell had an only slightly more effective series, scoring 2 goals- one on the power play, with no assists and an abysmal -3 rating (once again, he scored an even-strength goal, meaning he was on the ice for 4 goals-against to counteract his goal-for +). He averaged 15:33 in ice time, and was deployed more defensively than his linemate Hudler, with a 48.8% offensive-zone start rate. His Corsi % showed this effect, as he posted a Corsi For % of 42.1%, and a Corsi-for relative of -19.7. He was able to fire 12 shots on goal.
To be fair, the two wings did deploy with a variety of centers due to the injury to Vincent Trocheck that pushed Nick Bjugstad up to the 2nd line. While that may have effected their offensive play, their defensive zone coverage was also bad. Rocco Grimaldi, Logan Shaw, Bjugstad, MacKenzie, and for one game a combination of several centers, all played with Purcell and Hudler. Grimaldi played only 2 games, and sat for most of the second. He played an average of 10:30 in ice time, with no points, 2 shots on goal, and a Corsi for % of 46.9% and a -1 rating. Shaw played 3 games, averaging 11:37 in ice time, with 9 shots on goal, a 60% offensive zone start rate, a Corsi for of 45.3%, and a -2 rating. Derek MacKenzie averaged 14:40 in ice time over 6 games, with 9 shots, 1 assist, a 54% offensive zone start rate, a 47.8% Corsi-for %, and a Corsi for relative of -11.4. He also won 54.7% of his face-offs.
The 3rd line accounted for one even-strength goal in the series, and using the shots of a combined MacKenzie, Grimaldi, and Shaw, along with Purcell and Hudler, leads to a total of 37 shots (which is being extremely generous, as Mac and Shaw got more shots on the 4th line than the 3rd, and Purcell got several of his on the power play). How much confidence did Gerard Gallant have in that line? The first two lines all averaged over 19 minutes of ice time per game, and that is merely because Bjugstad finished with an average of 19:08, having missed the 2nd of the double-overtime games, and much of the first. After Bjugstad, the first two lines were averaging over 23 minutes per game per player. The steep drop off to the 3rd line is telling.
The 4th line was barely used
Sticking with the usage issue, it did not appear that Gerard Gallant had much faith in his 4th line either, as we noted that Logan Shaw averaged 11:37 in ice time, and Derek MacKenzie 14:40, but after those two, Garrett Wilson averaged 8:55, and Shawn Thornton averaged 7:10. That's somewhat astounding when you consider that the team played 3 overtime games, two of which went to double overtime (not that they each played in those games). The Panthers became a two-line team, and as we will see shortly, only one of those lines added much actual offensive production.
Breakdowns were costly
None of us can forget one of our most experienced players and the big turnover trying to come out from the end line through the face-off dot: yes, Brian Campbell had his pocket picked by John Tavares and the Islanders scored a big goal in Game 1. In that same game, Campbell lost a battle on the boards that led to a scoring chance and hooking call on Gudbranson for tying up a man in front of the net on the rebound. Campbell got overwhelmed by Tavares several times in the series, and finished tied for the team-worst plus/minus rating of -3.
Campbell was the epitome of high risk - high reward, as he finished the series with an assist (which also meant his plus minus likely could have been worse), and a Corsi For % of 55.6%, and Corsi- for relative of -.3. But the failures, when they occurred, were epic. Obviously, the series-winner came with Tavares out-muscling Campbell and then Aaron Ekblad.
Roberto Luongo had an amazing Game 2, 4, 5, and 6, but in Game 1 he posted a save percentage of .808, and in Game 3, he posted an .897. Game 1 was a massively important loss for the Panthers, as the Islanders scored 5 goals while playing catch up to the Cats. The Panthers played catch-up to the Islanders, trading wins, the rest of the series.
Mental breakdowns, like Derek MacKenzie's costly and ill-advised slash in overtime in Game 5, or Aleksander Barkov's retaliatory slash in Game 4, sometimes proved costly. But all of this must be added to one thing, and that is:
The Panthers could not score on Greiss and the Islanders defensive scheme
After scoring 4 goals against the Isles in Game 1, the Panthers put 3 on Thomas Greiss in Game 3, but otherwise were held to a goal or two by the Islanders goalie and defensive scheme in the other games (The Cats got an empty-net goal in Game 2). The Panthers badly out-shot the Islanders, but the numbers can be deceiving. The Islanders packed the house and blocked large numbers of shots, gobbled up rebounds, or kept the Cats away from them, and mostly forced the Panthers to shoot from farther away. Like an NBA team living on the 3-point shot, it's harder to score consistently from the outside, and productivity suffers, and the Islanders did as good a job as any team has at forcing the Panthers away from effective offensive net-front play. The Islanders seemed content to let the Panthers forwards and defense engage in the cycle at the boards until worn down, and than attack them before they could launch a good scoring chance. Undoubtedly, this plan worked because the Panthers top-6 forwards, as noted above, were playing large numbers of minutes.
Greiss finished the series with a stellar .944 save percentage and a 1.79 goals-against-average while saving 234 shots. For those who like comparisons, Brian Elliott just led the Blues to a win over one of the NHL's powerhouse offensive teams (Blackhawks) and he sported a .929 save percentage and 2.40 GAA. Roberto Luongo finished with a playoff save percentage of .934 and 2.05 GAA. Braden Holtby finished against the offensiveless Flyers with a 0.84 GAA and .968 save percentage. Ben Bishop, who will see the Islanders soon, beat a punchless Detroit squad with a 1.61 GAA and .950 save percentage. Yes, Greiss was excellent, but the system employed by the Islanders to ever more effectiveness as the series went on let him get even better. More on that in a moment.
Reilly Smith led the Panthers with 4 goals, all from early in the series before the Islanders began keying on him, and before Nick Bjugstad was removed from the 2nd line. The move was questionable, for while Trocheck played well and had an incredible regular season, Bjugstad turned a corner in the playoffs and began finally using his size to attack the front of the net and muscle in for rebounds- one of the few Panthers who was effective in that role.
After Smith, the Cats had 3 forwards with 2 goals each, Bjugstad, Purcell, and Barkov. Greiss played exceptional, and most importantly, he allowed few rebounds and second chances. As well as Luongo played, there were numerous rebounds that led to second and third chances.
Major credit must be given to Jack Capuano, as the system he devised to play the Panthers used the Cats strengths in possession and cycling against them. They literally waited the Panthers out, letting them tire, letting them activate a D-man to keep a puck in the zone or jump down the boards, and than the Isles would uncoil from the middle of the ice and attack a tired Panther team. It was Muhammad Ali playing rope-a-dope, as they exerted little energy at times holding a box while one defensive player pursued the Panther cycle until the Cats came out of it to attempt a shot. At times, the Islanders were forced to come out and pursue and when that did occur, the Panthers did create chances, but more often the New Yorkers waited.The system worked perfectly, as the Panthers older wings would than have trouble maintaining back check pressure against the Islanders counterattack and the Isles would out muscle tired legs, resulting in net-front pressure on the Cats.
While they did not have the same marathon overtime games as the Panthers, other teams had the luxury of managing ice time far differently for their stars: Nikita Kucherov has averaged 18:46 in the playoffs, Tyler Johnson, 17:26, TJ Oshie, 17:55, Phil Kessel, 17:15, Alex Ovechkin, 19:52, and Sydney Crosby, 20:15. All those who think Jagr must be done, consider that he was averaging 21:51 in ice time per night in the series- quite a bit for a 44-year old who averaged 17:05 in the regular season. The first line was gassed.
What we thought would be Panther depth was anything but, and it played into the game plan the Islanders developed to counter Florida's limited threats. Listening to pre-game discussion of the Nashville Predators game against Anaheim before Game 6, the discussion focused on Nashville's lack of depth scoring, and terrible power play. Sound familiar? And that is a team that took years to get out of the first round of the playoffs, and is now struggling to get back to the second round. Plenty of great teams go home in the first round, for plenty of reason- now including both the Kings and Blackhawks.
Author's note: Normally speaking, a cycle offense wears down defenses that pursue along the boards and are forced to play against bigger, stronger forwards. A cycle offense is probably the greatest possession offense in hockey. Many successful NHL playoff teams use the cycle to great effect, such as the St. Louis Blues, and it worked very well for the Panthers to generate possession in this series. Yet, most successful teams- as noted- roll at least 3 lines, and shrink the ice time of their top units, there was much talk in the hockey world about the Blues usage of Vladimir Tarasenko, and how he was seeing the ice at about the same rate as the Blues 3rd line. Ultimately, the Panthers were victimized by lack of depth, back-to-back games, lengthy overtimes, and the Islanders emerging system of playing a waiting game and not attacking in most instances until the Panthers came off the wall.
The good news
Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I think that the lessons the kids on this team learned will serve them well next season. The adage you have to learn to win in the playoffs by losing first is time-tested and true. The Panthers were a few pieces short, but even still, they came within a one goal-game and a few overly-impactful officials from extending the series to Game 7, where anything could've happened. And that was despite a dead power play, a dead 3rd and 4th line, and an exceptionally hot opposing goaltender and star player in John Tavares.
We saw Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Matheson, Wilson, Shaw, and Kulikov emerge as monsters. Ekblad and Barkov played great, but I suspect they have another gear they are only just beginning to touch and they will be even better the next time around.
The Islanders played a smart game of dead hockey, and will give Tampa's smaller forwards more trouble than they gave the Panthers. The series in round one was every bit the even match up the numbers and regular season games predicted it would be. The Panthers need to have a far more effective power play, need to stay out of the penalty box and need more scoring depth. Other than that, they were a team whose dominance was acknowledged by even those in the national and Islanders press corps. Now the Cats know what it takes, and they will use that next season to great effect. The Islanders played the Cats perfectly, but the Panthers will likely be a team that cannot be contained with depth and a better power play.