NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Islanders and Panthers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Islanders-Panthers Game 4 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
The Panthers scored two goals in the third period and fought off a late push by the Islanders to avoid elimination and force a Game 4. Sergei Bobrovsky stepped up in net and made 20 saves just one day after allowing four goals on 34 shots in a 4-2 loss in Game 2.
Only seven times out of 57 has a team forced Game 5 after trailing 2-0 in a best-of-five. The only team of those seven to complete the comeback was the Islanders, who defeated the Capitals in a 1985 series.
The Panthers did have three separate three-plus game winning streaks this season (3, 3, 6). Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996 – the longest active drought in the NHL.
WHAT: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto WHEN: Friday, August 7, 12 p.m. ET TV: NBCSN ON THE CALL: Mike Tirico, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Islanders-Panthers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI leads series 2-1)
Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap) Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap) Wednesday, Aug. 5: Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (recap) Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream) Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*
Through two games, the Hurricanes have jumped on the Rangers early and forced them to chase. In Game 1, Jaccob Slavin needed just 61 seconds to open the scoring. Andrei Svechnikov started his run to the first postseason hat trick in franchise history 4:32 into Game 2. Carolina also scored twice in a span of 2:22 in the second period Monday, putting New York in “uncharted territory,” as defenseman Marc Staal put it.
The Rangers’ season could be over by tonight after Game 3 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream). The odds aren’t in their favor. According to the NHL, teams that win each of the first two games in a best-of-five series are 55-1 all-time.
“We need everybody in that room to be just a little bit smarter, a little bit more patient, work a little bit harder, win more wall battles,” said Rangers head coach David Quinn. “All those things add up. We did it probably for 20 minutes and then just when we got down 3-1, you could feel it on the bench. That’s not a feeling we’ve had very often since the turn of the calendar.”
It’s hard to say if New York’s fate would be different had Igor Shesterkin been healthy enough to play the first two games. But goaltending aside, the Rangers have only scored once at even strength and have been losing the possession game badly (44%), per Natural Stat Trick.
“Between now and [Tuesday] night at eight o’clock, we have to learn that we can’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Quinn. “Our lack of patience is killing us right now. Was it better than it was [in Game 1]? Yeah, it was. But we didn’t come here to get incrementally better. We came here to win hockey games. We’re not doing enough.”
NHL GAMES TODAY
Game 2: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream –(NYI lead series 1-0): Styles make fights, and it was the Islanders’ defensive style that took over and earned New York a Game 1 win. Trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau opened the scoring in the 1st period and Anthony Beauvillier added a power-play goal early in the second to give New York a 2-0 lead. Johnny Boychuk did not skate on Monday after taking a high hit from Mike Matheson. Andy Greene and Noah Dobson are options should Boychuk be unavailable.
Game 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream –(ARZ leads series 1-0): Will we see Pekka Rinne in net for Nashville? Perhaps. Head coach John Hynes wouldn’t disclose who will start Game 2. Meanwhile, the Coyotes know it’s a race to three wins, and there’s still plenty of work left. “To be honest, you’ve got to forget about that game,” said Rick Tocchet. “I know you can feel good about yourself, but sometimes when you feel too good about yourself, you get too comfortable.”
Game 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream –(CBJ leads series 1-0): Joonas Korpisalo got the nod over Elvis Merzlikins and shut out the Maple Leafs in Toronto in his postseason debut. He stopped 28 shots to record the first postseason shutout in Blue Jackets history. The low-scoring, defensive style played to the Blue Jackets’ strengths – only two teams allowed fewer goals per game in the regular season than Columbus. A tight game in the third period is also familiar to the Blue Jackets, as they were tied with Minnesota for most regular season wins when entering the third period tied (12).
Game 3: Flames vs. Jets, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream –(Series tied 1-1): After a gutsy Game 2 win, the Jets still aren’t saying anything on the statuses of Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine. Head coach Paul Maurice would only say “we’ll see how they come to the rink [Tuesday].” Calgary would like to see more success with the power play after an 0-for-6 performance Monday. They do need to be more disciplined as they’ve been shorthanded 13 times, the most in the postseason through three days.
Game 2: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:45 p.m. ET, USA Network; livestream –(MIN leads series 1-0): The final Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers saw the Wild handle the Canucks to the tune of a 3-0 victory. The Wild’s scoring leader had 14 goals over his final 18 games of the regular season and opened up their playoff tilt with a goal less than 3 minutes into the game, his first postseason goal as a member of the Wild.
WEDNESDAY’S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
Game 3: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET (live look-in, NBCSN)
Round-robin: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET (live look-in, NBCSN)
Game 3: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)
The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups.
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers — TV schedule, start times, channels
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers* Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*
Islanders – Panthers preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series
Coming in with a whopping $10 million cap hit, Bobrovsky stands far above any other player in this best-of-five series from a salary standpoint. That said, you don’t need charts full of “fancy stats” to realize that the Panthers haven’t gotten their money’s worth from the debut “Bob” season.
Squint a little and you’ll realize there are reasons for optimism, though:
That’s all in the past, as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers represent a clean slate for Bobrovsky, the Panthers, and Islanders.
“Bob” delivered with a .925 save percentage in 10 playoff games for the Blue Jackets after a mostly rotten contract year. He also heated up down the stretch. In 28 games following the 2019 NHL All-Star break, Bobrovsky produced a strong .924 save percentage.
Yes, there are plenty of counterpoints to throw water on those positive thoughts. Most obviously, the Blue Jackets really clamped down late in 2018-19 (just ask the shocked-and-swept Lightning), while the Panthers have been porous defensively.
But goalies are strange, and are likely to be even more unpredictable during the NHL Return to Play. Would it be that outrageous if a goalie with Bobrovsky’s resume bounced back?
Strength vs. strength: Can Islanders defense slow down Panthers offense?
With 3.30 goals scored per game, the Panthers ranked sixth in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Islanders limited opponents as you’d hope and expect from a Barry Trotz team (2.79 goals allowed per game, ninth-best in the NHL).
Assuming both teams maintain their basic styles and profiles during the NHL Return to Play, the Panthers and Islanders would present an intriguing battle of strength vs. strength.
Some might argue that Aleksander Barkov‘s defensive abilities have become overrated, but few would argue that he can produce for the Panthers. Jonathan Huberdeau (78 points, tied for 10th-most in NHL) has been even tougher to contain as he’s gotten healthier, and the Panthers possess plenty of other weapons. (Although depth isn’t their strongest point.)
Between Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, it seems like the Islanders should have a capable goalie behind Trotz’s responsible defensive system. Will that rust benefit the Islanders, or will they struggle to stop the Panthers following the pandemic pause?
Weakness vs. weakness: Islanders offense vs. Panthers defense
Circling back to Bobrovsky, it’s grossly unfair to lay the Panthers’ goal prevention problems solely at his feet/skates. The Panthers regularly allowed far more offense than they created, often leaving Bob and others out to dry when it came to expected goals and high-danger scoring chances.
The Islanders’ offense checks out in certain areas more than one might think (and their defense gives up a little more than you might expect). That said, overall, one would expect the Islanders to avoid slugging things out offensively.
Can Mathew Barzal and several other scorers manufacture enough offense to outgun the Panthers? If Florida’s defense struggles like it did before the pause, the answer could be “Yes.”
Rare playoff appearances for Varlamov and/or Greiss
On paper, the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss give the Islanders an edge over the Panthers, particularly looking at Bobrovsky in 2019-20 alone.
But it’s worth pondering just how long it’s been since either Varlamov or Greiss served as go-to playoff goalies.
Greiss has only played in 13 playoff games as (an often strong) career backup. He only appeared in 36 minutes worth of game time during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
As experienced as Varlamov is, we haven’t seen him in the postseason very often lately. Varlamov hasn’t played a playoff game since 2013-14, and before that, his experience stretches back to his Capitals days.
That only means so much, of course. It’s worth at least mentioning because teams are far likely to painstakingly key on weaknesses and relentlessly go over game tape when you’re focusing on a single opponent.
Who’s out? Who might return?
Islanders: The Isles exit the pandemic pause about as healthy as you can ask for. The Islanders traded forAndy Greene in large part because of an injury to Adam Pelech. Now they’ll have both defensemen as options, leaving Barry Trotz with some potential conundrums. Casey Cizikas appears to have a clean bill of health, too. Oliver Wahlstrom ranks among the most intriguing Islanders players who didn’t make the training camp cut. Meanwhile, Ilya Sorokin can get acquainted with the team, but cannot participate in actual games.
Panthers:Aaron Ekblad missed significant training camp time, but Joel Quenneville said he should be ready for the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Injuries don’t look like much of an issue for the Panthers, either, so neither team will have many health-related excuses. (Of course, that can change quickly once the NHL Return to Play kicks into another gear.)
More on 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, NHL Return to Play series:
With the New Jersey Devils missing out on the NHL’s 24-team return from the pause caused by the novel coronavirus, center Nico Hischier is putting his extended offseason to good use.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft is fulfilling his military obligation to Switzerland, which has a mandatory 18-week service for men followed by three-week stints over the next six or seven years.
Hischier had thought about fulfilling it during the season, but with the Devils uncertain when they would return from the pause, it turned out to be the perfect option.
“One reason I did it was I needed to stay in shape,” Hischier said Saturday on a Zoom call. “I didn’t know where to go because gyms weren’t open and I couldn’t just work out at home. I just didn’t have the tools for a good workout there. For a couple weeks it worked, but I felt like I needed to go somewhere to be prepared when we had to go back and play again. Then the army came and they had a great solution because where I’m working right now, that’s a great building. They have everything there you need.”
The 21-year-old Hischier is in a special program for athletes, although the first four weeks of classes were held remotely because of the virus. He is now attending classes to learn emergency medical techniques, among other things, in the mornings and working out with fellow athletes in the afternoon, including some hockey players from the Swiss national team.
He is not learning how to march or drive a tank, and he’s not heading to the firing range to shoot an automatic weapon. The soldiers in Switzerland’s professional army do that.
Hischier does get a uniform and there are rules to follow. He works five days, goes home and returns the following week. He does not have a rank – yet.
“We didn’t do much army stuff yet,” Hichier said, although he expects jt will increase by the time he finishes in mid-August.
Hischier is coming off what he considers a disappointing season. Like most of the Devils, he played well after a bad start led to the firing of coach John Hynes and general manager Ray Shero. He finished with 14 goals and 22 assists in 58 games. New Jersey posted a 28-29-12 record, finishing 12-5-4 in the last 21 contests under interim coach Alain Nasreddine.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a year that we expect,” Hischier said. “A lot of things happened, obviously, with all those changes. It wasn’t easy. I think the biggest thing for us was that we had a really bad start. It’s always frustrating and not easy when you’re down in the standings and you have to catch up.”
Hischier felt he took a few steps forward in his third season, but the team’s lack of success took away from that.
With the late-season trade of defenseman Andy Greene, Hischier is open to the idea of replacing him as the Devils’ captain next season. He was an alternate captain this season.
“At the end of the day, I’m still a young player,” Hischier said. “I still got a long, long way to go, a lot of things that I don’t know yet. I need to learn.”
It’s like learning to be in the army in some ways.
NHL Return to Play: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens
Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens vs. Penguins Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens* Saturday, Aug. 8: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Regular season recap
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Saturday, Aug. 1: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes*
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*
Regular season recap
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.