The Islanders and Rangers are headed to Vegas to resume their quest for the Stanley Cup after both teams made the 24-team Playoff. The Islanders are set up to face the Florida Panthers, while the Rangers face up against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs. The first round of the playoffs will be a best of 5 games, the winner advancing to play against the 2nd and 3rd Seed (after the top 4 teams play a round robin). How do these matchups benefit the Islanders and Rangers, and will playing in Vegas (and different time zone) have an impact on these teams?
Islanders vs. Panthers
A rematch of the 2016 playoffs, when former Captain John Tavares won the series for the Islanders in 2OT in Game Six, this is a good matchup for both clubs. The COVID-19 stoppage came at the best time possible for the Islanders, as they were dealing with a multitude of injuries to key players such as defenseman Adam Pelech and center Casey Cizikas, and had lost seven straight games. Fully healthy, the Islanders are back to full strength heading into this five-game series. On paper, the Panthers are a formidable team, led by one of the league’s best two-way forwards, Aleksander Barkov, wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman, and Former 1st Overall Pick Aaron Ekblad. However, they haven’t been able to put all of their talent together. Former Vezina Winner (awarded to the league’s best goaltender) Sergei Bobrovsky is the starting goalie for the Panthers, and he is the X-factor in this series. Bobrovsky was disappointing in his first season with the Panthers, putting up a below-average .900 Save Percentage, and a 3.23 GAA, which were much worse marks than his career average .917 Save Percentage and 2.54 GAA. If he gets hot, the Islanders will be in trouble, especially with their lackluster offense. Another big factor in this series will be Jordan Eberle. The first line winger was struggling mightily this season, mustering just 40 points in 58 games, while playing next to young star Mathew Barzal all season. However, he began to pick it up at the end of February, when he scored 10 points in 10 games. If he can play the way he was starting to play near the end of the season and how he played in the playoffs last year, the Islanders will find success in the playoffs. Over the past three years, the Islanders are 1-2 in games in Vegas, and were awful on the west coast this season, not even recording a win against several teams that didn’t even qualify for the 24 team playoff, and were shut out twice. Hopefully, this was a result of fatigue and injury, and not because the Islanders are actually bad on the West Coast.
Rangers vs. Hurricanes
This is a matchup that most Ranger Fans are happy about, as the Rangers swept the Hurricanes this year, beating them all four times they matched-up. The Rangers, coming out of a rebuild, signed winger Artemi Panarin in free agency, and one could argue that he carried this team to where they are now. The Hart Memorial Trophy Candidate (MVP) put together a monster year with 35 Goals and 95 Points in 69 games, and was great alongside Centerman Mika Zibanejad who recorded 41 goals and 75 points in 57 games. Carolina is a good team however, and have a scary Top 6 defenseman group, headlined by Dougie Hamilton, who is returning from a broken leg. While it is easy to be happy about this matchup for Ranger fans, it is important to keep in mind that the Rangers are a very young team, and that they don’t have too much playoff experience throughout the roster. The Carolina Hurricanes are a team that made it to the ECF last year (albeit they were swept by the Bruins) and have a lot of playoff experience. This should be a good, hard fought series, but in the end it will come down to goaltending. A main question for the Rangers is who will start in net? Will it be Igor Shestorkin, who has just 12 NHL games under his belt (during which he was lights out), Georgiev, or Henrik Lundqvist? Despite his struggles, the Rangers could easily give the Starting role to Lundqvist because of his playoff experience, but if Shestorkin could replicate his play before the season was stopped, he could carry the Rangers to playoff series wins. As for playing on the West Coast, the Rangers struggled as much as the Islanders did, just winning one of six West Coast matchups.
Both first round matchups should be good and hard-fought series, and it will be interesting to see how both teams play coming out of this extended break. There is also a possibility for an Islanders-Rangers Series, if both teams win their first two Playoff Series.