Panthers, Islanders still looking for last season's magic
SUNRISE, Fla. — When the New York Islanders visit the Florida Panthers on Saturday night at the BB&T Center, it will be a rematch of last season's first-round playoff series.
The Islanders won that series in six games, extinguishing a Panthers season that had seen Florida claim the Atlantic Division for the first time after winning a franchise-record 47 games.
Both teams topped 100 points last season. Both entered this season as Stanley Cup contenders with odds floating between 21-1 (Panthers) and 23-1 (Islanders).
But so far this season, neither team is doing very well. Florida (6-7-1) is in last place in the Atlantic. New York (5-7-2) is next-to-last in the Metropolitan Division.
There are 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, all battling for eight playoff spots, and the Panthers and Islanders are each digging themselves a hole.
After losing a home game 4-2 to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday, Florida coach Gerard Gallant intimated that his team is close to regaining its 2015-2016 form.
“I like the way we've played most of our games,” Gallant said. “But if you look at the San Jose game, three mistakes, and they are in the back of our net.”
The fourth Sharks goal was an empty-netter, but the message was clear: The Panthers need to focus for the full 60 minutes and beyond in case of overtime.
Florida did get some help on the injury front on Thursday with the return of left winger Jussi Jokinen. Center Nick Bjugstad should return next week.
The Panthers are expected to start Roberto Luongo in goal against New York. Backup James Reimer, who took the loss against the Sharks on Thursday, started three of the past six games — a heavier work load than expected.
Meanwhile, the Islanders never led in Thursday's 4-1 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning. New York fell behind 3-0 before Andrew Ladd scored the only goal for New York, which was penalized six times and beaten twice on Lightning power plays.
“We thought we created some chances and did some good things 5-on-5,” Ladd told the media on Thursday. “But it is tough when you are in the penalty box all night.”
Only five NHL teams have committed more penalties than the Islanders entering Friday. The Islanders have committed 68 penalties this season. The Panthers, by contrast, have been caught just 52 times. Only four teams have less penalty minutes per game than the Panthers.
Besides the concern on penalties, the Islanders are also dealing with another ugly trend — they are 0-4-0 on the road this season.
Jaroslav Halak started in goal for New York on THursday but was pulled after making only 13 saves on 16 shots on goal. Goalie Thomas Greiss entered the game at 2:50 in the second period and allowed only one goal the rest of the way.
Islanders coach Jack Capuano and star center John Tavares are both concerned with the penalties, especially since New York had just one power play on its side on Thursday.
“There were a couple of calls that were real questionable,” Capuano said. “We played pretty tough 5-on-5. We have to find a way to kill penalties.”
Unfortunately for the Islanders, only three teams are having less success than New York on the penalty kill. The Islanders are tied for 26th place with a 75.9 percentage.
Tavares and other Islanders made the point that when so many penalties are called, it puts New York's penalty-killers on the ice for extended periods. Some of the skilled scorers who are not on the PK units can get “cold” and out of sorts.
“It's no secret,” Tavares said. “The amount of penalties we're taking is putting us in a tough spot to climb out of holes and into games.”