Historically, teams that win Game 1 of a best-of-five series, and until Saturday there hadn’t been one in the NHL since 1986, go on to advance 81.9% of the time.
So, the Islanders’ 2-1 win over the Panthers to open their qualifying series on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena was encouraging for a few reasons. There’s the huge advantage they now have based on past performances toward closing out the series. But, more importantly, they played with pace and discipline despite having just five defensemen for almost two periods.
They also won the crucial special teams’ battle. They got a power-play goal from Anthony Beauvillier at 3:39 of the second period to make it 2-0 after Mike Matheson’s illegal check to the head sent Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk into concussion protocol at 2:44. And they killed off the potent Panthers’ lone power play.
“I think guys are just fired up and excited,” center Brock Nelson said. “After the break, with everything going on in the world, everyone is revved up and ready to play hockey. There was a lot of built-up animosity. The pace was high.”
Game 2 is Tuesday at noon and Game 3 follows 24 hours later. The Islanders’ last game, other than a 2-1 exhibition win over the Rangers on Wednesday night, was a 5-4 shootout loss at Vancouver on March 10. The season was paused two days later in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Semyon Varlamov made 27 saves while Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 26 shots for the Panthers.
“I think, you go back to the exhibition game, we did a pretty good job of playing to our structure,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “Coming into today, we knew that would be a big part of it, getting back to our structure. Throughout the game, we did a pretty good job of that, just sticking with it and playing the way we like to play.”
“The intensity is a little bit higher than an exhibition game,” said Beauvillier, whose line with Nelson and Josh Bailey was the Islanders’ most consistent, combining to generate 12 shots. “That’s why we’re hockey players. We want to be in high-intensity, high-pace games. It was a fast pace, a heavy game.”
Coach Barry Trotz answered three, key lineup questions in Game 1.
The first was starting Varlamov over Thomas Greiss. The second was sticking with his established defense pairs and making Andy Greene and Noah Dobson healthy scratches, despite that duo’s strong showing in Training Camp 2.0 and against the Rangers.
The third was Trotz inserting Tom Kuhnhackl, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, as the 12th forward, putting him on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s line with Derick Brassard after using burly Ross Johnston there in the exhibition game.
Kuhnhackl’s forecheck started the sequence that led to Pageau’s goal at the crease off Brassard’s feed to make it 1-0 at 12:00 of the first period.
“I thought the whole team did well on the forecheck,” Pageau said.
Bobrovsky kept the Panthers’ deficit at two goals with a stretching toe save on Nelson at 19:29 of the second period. That save proved almost instantly significant as Jonathan Huberdeau got to the crease and slipped a puck between Varlamov’s pads to cut the Islanders’ lead to 2-1 just 23 seconds into the third period.
Bobrovsky denied Nelson at the crease again at 15:45 of the third period. But the Islanders never stopped attacking after Huberdeau’s goal, keeping the Panthers from building momentum.
“I liked our focus even when Johnny went down,” Trotz said. “Our response was we scored on the power play. We didn’t take an undisciplined penalty. I thought we reeled it in in the third period and we were solid.”
The Islanders built off their strong defensive effort in their exhibition win over the Rangers with a similarly strong structure and pace to start a game that counted, taking the first eight shots and limiting the Panthers to one shot over the opening nine minutes.
“We have an understanding of what we’re capable of doing,” Trotz said. “I don’t think we try to be something we’re not. We’ve learned to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We’ve handled that well the most part the last two years.”