SYOSSET, N.Y. (AP) The New York Islanders are starting to get healthy as they prepare for their third playoff appearance in four years.
After dealing with various injuries to key players over the final weeks of the season, the Islanders hope to build on their depth and resilience to accomplish something they haven’t done since 1993 – win a first-round series.
“I know our fan base is dying for it,” captain John Tavares said Tuesday after the team’s practice. “They’ve been itching for us to obviously get past the first round, get over that hump. Even though it’ll be a third year out of four in the playoffs, we know the expectations are higher than where we’ve gotten to.”
New York could have key defenseman Travis Hamonic back for the series opener at Florida on Thursday night after he missed the last six games of the regular season with a lower-body injury. Hamonic has practiced for several days and appears close to returning.
“I felt good,” he said after taking part in the team’s latest workout. “I’ve been skating for a handful of days. It’s (the) coaches’ decision if they feel I’m ready to go. Personally, I feel fine.”
Islanders coach Jack Capuano is being cautious before committing to Hamonic’s return for Game 1.
“You don’t want to rush guys back,” Capuano said. “I want him to go through some agility drills and see how he feels. But he practiced today, so (Wednesday) if he has a good day, it’s something we’ll think about for Thursday.”
Starting goalie Jaroslav Halak could miss the entire opening round and forward Anders Lee is out indefinitely with a broken leg. But other players who missed time down the stretch are good to go, including forwards Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck – who sat out three games in the final week – and defenseman Calvin de Haan.
The Islanders used 32 players, including four goalies, this season, and Capuano is confident the experience gained while some players were out will be a bonus in the playoffs.
“It’s a tough grind,” Capuano said. “The injuries that we’ve had … it’s been ongoing for the last two months. Guys have missed time and other guys have stepped up and played some really solid minutes for us. That’s the impressive thing about this group. They’ve been resilient.”
The Islanders completed a successful first season at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center after spending their first 43 years at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale on Long Island. They reached the 100-point mark for the second straight season – something the franchise hadn’t accomplished in consecutive years since 1982. They also earned 55 points at home (25-11-5) – their highest total since also having 55 in 2003-04.
Not every part of the move was smooth. Fans took to social media to vent their frustration at arena management, which handles game-day operations. A lot of the ire was over some obstructed seats in the team’s new home. Some other complaints were appeased, including the easing of restrictions prohibiting fans arriving early to watch warmups up close, and the return of the team’s mascot, Sparky, midseason after being initially scrapped.
New York stumbled late in the season with a 1-4-2 stretch that put their postseason spot in peril before rebounding with seven wins in nine games. Now, the Islanders will be trying to advance to the second round for the first time since reaching the Eastern Conference finals 23 years ago- following that up with one-and-done appearances in 1994, 2002-04, `07, `13 and `15.
“Once you get to the dance, you have to win 16 games (to win the Stanley Cup),” forward Kyle Okposo said. “Gotta start with four here against a pretty good team, and we’re excited for the challenge.”
New York’s chances against the Atlantic Division-champion Panthers could depend on goalie Thomas Greiss, who was 18-6-3 with a 2.20 goals-against average at the time of Halak’s injury, but hasn’t been at his best since. He gave up three or more goals in six of his last 12 starts and finished 23-11-4 with a 2.36 GAA while appearing in a career-high 41 games.
Greiss has made just one playoff start in his career, and Jean-Francois Berube and Christopher Gibson – who had some solid starts down the stretch – have none.
“I’ve been around teams that often enough have made deep playoff runs,” Greiss said. “So I know the atmosphere and that kind of stuff, so it’s not going to be too surprising. … I don’t think you have to overthink it. “