The Islanders lost their regular-season finale Sunday night, but did they really win?
Their 5-2 loss to the Flyers at Barclays Center assured the Islanders of what most would view as the preferable first- round matchup in the playoffs. They will face the Panthers in Game 1 Thursday night in Sunrise, Florida.
Despite winning the Atlantic Division title, the Panthers are as untested as the Islanders in the postseason, a very different team from the red-hot Penguins, whom the Islanders would have faced had they won Sunday night.
Jack Capuano and the makeshift crew that faced the Flyers swore there was no ulterior motive in sitting out the team’s three top scorers and top two defensemen.
“None,” Capuano said. “We have to do what’s best for us. That wouldn’t have changed.”
So resting John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and Casey Cizikas took precedence over trying hard to earn the last two points of the season. A win would have pushed the Isles past the Rangers into third place in the Metropolitan Division, which would have given them a playoff matchup with second-place Pittsburgh.
Nikolay Kulemin and Matt Martin scored in the first 9:19, but the Flyers scored the next five goals. The Isles mustered only 17 shots on Michal Neuvirth and used some very unfamiliar players on special teams.
Playoff Game 1 starter Thomas Greiss played only the first period, relieved by Christopher Gibson in a bid to get Greiss some game work before the postseason begins.
“It’s almost like a preseason game,” Capuano said. “We’re a little gun-shy with all the injuries we’ve had, so we didn’t use our regular penalty-killers.”
The Flyers also rested their top players but had two first-period power-play goals and controlled the remaining 40 minutes. That made it seem as if the Islanders had the thought of losing to ensure not only a first-round matchup with the Panthers but a weaker second-round opponent as well. The Islanders-Panthers winner will face the winner of the Lightning-Red Wings series; the Penguins-Rangers winner gets the Capitals-Flyers winner.
“It’s disrespectful to Florida and to those other teams to think that way,” Thomas Hickey said. “You still have to win a round just to get to those other teams. There’s no sense trying to think ahead.”
The Islanders will take the next few days to get their health in order, with the hope that Travis Hamonic (knee) will be ready for Game 1 and the rested regulars will be in good shape.
Then it will be time to focus on Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and the Panthers’ cast of youngsters. The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 and the Panthers haven’t won one since 1996, so some ugly history will be erased. “They’ve got a good mix of young and old players,’’ Martin said. “There’s really no weakness in their lineup.”
Martin assured listeners that there was no effort to face that Panthers team. “We’ve got some important pieces we couldn’t risk getting hurt,” he said. “We’re a playoff team. Every team in the league [rests players]. The Flyers did it too tonight.”
Notes & quotes: After the game, the Islanders sent Alan Quine, Bracken Kearns and Ross Johnston back to Bridgeport. Quine had his first NHL goal on Saturday.
Islanders vs. Panthers
Game 1: Thursday, at Florida, CNBC, 8 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, at Florida, NHL 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, at Islanders, NBCSN, 8 p.m.
Game 4: April 20, at Islanders, USA, 8 p.m.
*Game 5: April 22, at Florida, TBD
*Game 6: April 24, at Islanders, TBD
*Game 7: April 26, at Florida, TBD