Derick Brassard's stay with the Panthers in 2018-19 lasted just 10 games as he played for three teams. Still, he knows first-hand how dangerous the Islanders’ opponent in their best-of-five qualifying series can be.
“They’re high-end guys,” the Islanders forward said. “[Aleksander] Barkov can play in any situation and [Jonathan] Huberdeau is coming on. He’s a really high-end, skilled guy with really good hockey sense. It’s the same thing for [defenseman Aaron] Ekblad. They added a lot of key guys in the summer, [goalie Sergei] Bobrovsky and [Brett] Connolly and [Brian] Boyle to give them more depth. We’re aware it’s going to be a tough series and we’re looking forward to it.”
Game 1 is Saturday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto as the NHL officially restarts its season after it was paused on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Eastern Conference is sequestered in an arena/practice rink/hotel bubble in Toronto while Edmonton is the Western Conference’s hub city.
“Yeah, it does feel like we have a playoff game [Saturday], just given the last eight weeks, starting with the beginning of Phase 2 [on June 8], there has been a lot of practice,” right wing Cal Clutterbuck said. “I honestly don’t think you have to search very far for motivation in this situation. It’s an opportunity we don’t get all the time.”
Last season, the Islanders’ first under coach Barry Trotz, they swept the Penguins in the first round but then were swept by the Hurricanes. This team has higher postseason expectations despite the unique circumstance and despite the 0-3-4 slide the Islanders were on heading into the season’s pause.
But top-pair defenseman Adam Pelech, who missed 30 games after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon on Jan. 2, and center Casey Cizikas, who missed the final 13 games after suffering a left leg laceration, are back at 100%. Trade acquisitions Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who centers the third line and will play both on the power play and the penalty kill, and defenseman Andy Greene had the luxury of an in-season training camp to further acclimate to their new team.
“I think we came back with a really good mindset,” Trotz said. “The opportunity to get a guy like Pelech back. Greene and Pageau are feeling a part of the group. It’s helped us as a team.”
That’s one X factor for this series. Another is how well Bobrovsky plays as the former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie struggled through his first season with the Panthers. Yet another is whether the Islanders’ penalty kill can contain the Panthers’ 10th-ranked power play.
“We’d like to stay out of the penalty box,” Trotz said. “That’s one area where they’ve been very strong. I’d stand our game five-on-five up against anybody.”
“It’s going to be tight,” defenseman Ryan Pulock added. “They’ve got some big forwards with skill. They’ve got some defensemen who like to get up in the play. We’ve got to get to their goaltending.”
The Islanders swept the season series, winning a 3-2 shootout at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 12, 2-1 at Barclays Center on Nov. 9 and 3-1 at Florida on Dec. 12.
Notes: Trotz would not name a starting goalie between Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss but said all players practiced on Friday and everybody on the active roster is available for Game 1…Goalie Linus Soderstrom, a fourth-round pick in 2014, will play in Finland next season. This season was his first in North America as he appeared in four games with the Islanders’ ECHL affiliate in Worcester…The Islanders have named Bryan Calka as senior vice president of partnerships and Tom Cerasoli as senior vice president of partnership activation as the team plans its move to UBS Arena at Belmont Park in 2021-22.