Islanders vs. Panthers - Opening Night
Preview: An opening night battle between last year's overall 27th and 28th best teams - the New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers. However with opening night comes the promise of new hope, a fresh start, and in the case of the Islanders and Panthers, a lot to be excited about.
The Islanders are opening their 40th season in franchise history and have set their goals high. GM Garth Snow has stated that the goal is for the team to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 4 seasons. The team is also looking for their first playoff series victory in 18 seasons.
The Islanders offseason was relatively quiet following a furious finish last season, where they collected the 3rd most points in the Eastern Conference after December 15th, though they failed to qualify for the playoffs. Offseason highlights included:
- Signing key players Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo and John Tavares to contract extensions
- Trading for veteran forward and heavy-shooting Brian Rolston
- Naming Mark Streit the first Swiss-born captain in NHL history and the 13th captain in the Islanders' 40 year history
- Inviting veterans Jay Pandolfo and Steve Staios to training camp to see them earn contracts with the squad to start the season
The Panthers open their 18th season in franchise history with lofty expectations themselves after perhaps the busiest July of any team in the NHL. What at first seemed like an offseason destined for the beginning of a slow and steady rebuild process "put the pedal to the metal" so to speak when Free Agency began, accumulating players left and right. GM Dale Tallon wasted little time presenting serious offers to a lot of hockey players when the Free Agency bell rang July 1st, and many of those players wasted no time in "taking their talents to South Beach." The Panthers are seeking their first playoff appearance since the lock out. Offseason highlights for the Panthers (Trades and Free Agent Frenzy):
- Signed as free agents: Forwards Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim,Marcel Goc and Matt Bradley, defenseman Ed Jovanovski, and goaltender Jose Theodore
- Traded for some familiar faces to GM Dale Tallon from his days with the Chicago Blackhawks, including defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky.
The Panthers took the approach of re-tooling through free agency rather than re-building through the draft, and as such will be an interesting team to follow throughout the season. (Spoiler alert: hasn't seemed to work out for the Leafs yet...)
Game 1 Matchups – Islanders vs. Panthers:
Forwards: The Islanders boast easily their deepest group of forwards since the early 1990's - the days of Pierre Turgeon, Steve Thomas, Derek King, etc. The Islanders return five 20 goal scorers to the lineup (Tavares, Grabner, Matt Moulson, P.A. Parenteau and Blake Comeau), and add a healthy Okposo and former 9th overall draft pick Josh Bailey to the mix. They also boast a Selke Trophy candidate-in-waiting who is starting to realize some offensive potential(in places other than the shootout) in Frans Neilsen, veteran Power Play point-man to be Brian Rolston, and rookie 2010 5th overall draft pick Nino Neiderrieter who may all be dark horses to sneak towards that 20 goal plateau. Newly signed Marty Reasoner, young grinder Matt Martin, and grizzled vet Jay Pandolfo complete the 4th line on a formidable NHL offensive unit.
For the Panthers, as with any team that has had this much personnel turnover, chemistry will be the name of the game heading in to Saturday night's opener. Was the preseason enough time for the new and old to learn each other's style of play? Will the guys handed big contracts (Bergenheim, Fleischmann, Upshall) prove to be worth it, or prove they were one-hit wonders? Can their younger players take a major step forward this year in their development - and on the score sheet? For now, many questions exist. 82 games remain til we can answer with any certainty.
Defense: The Islanders face a lot of questions with their defensive corps. Captain Mark Streit, Mark Eaton, Mike Mottau, and Andy MacDonald are all coming off of offseason surgery. Can they all return to form? Or will the injury bug strike early and often as it did last year? The remaining defensemen on the Isles’ opening night 23 man roster are Milan Jurcina, Steve Staios, and Travis Hamonic. Jurcina played just 46 games last season due to various injuries, Staios was a camp invitee who showed enough leadership and heart to earn a contract but it is doubtful his body can handle an 82 game grind, and Hamonic is coming off his own first experience with the 82 game grind (only 60 at the NHL level). How much can each of these three be counted on?
With two bona fide former NHL all-stars in Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski, the Panthers have an advantage over most teams when evaluating their blue line. Panthers fans are also excited that highly touted prospect and former #3 overall draft pick Erik Gudbranson is set to make his NHL debut this season, along with seeing continued development from Dmitry Kulikov, who is coming off of an impressive rookie campaign. The depth of Keaton Ellerby, Jason Garrison, and Mike Weaver as the 5-7 defensemen may not have names as recognizable as the Islanders’ 5-7, but these three players have far less questions surrounding their games and their health.
Goaltending: The Islanders begin the season with one of the most highly profiled and discussed three man goaltending carousels in the league. Whether you prefer the oft-injured but still highly talented netminder-for-life in Rick DiPietro, the former #7 overall pick who showed flashes of brilliance in his first real taste of NHL experience in Al Montoya, or the giant Russian question mark that is Evgeni Nabokov, each can make a case why they should be named the starter on Saturday. There is no obvious choice until one can take the number one job and own it – something we are not likely to see for at least a few weeks. Even Head Coach Jack Capuano has yet to name his starter, likely to continue the competition on the practice surface and to keep unnecessary tension out of the locker room before opening night.
The Panthers head into the season ready to take a long, long look at what they believe will be their franchise goalie for years to come, Jacob Markstrom. With Scott Clemmensen battling an injury and beginning the season on the Injured Reserve, Markstrom breaks camp with the Panthers looking to steal the number one job from the veteran Jose Theodore. Theodore was brought in by GM Dale Tallon this offseason to own the number one job and push Markstrom to earn his playing time. Markstrom is extremely talented, and if Theodore is up to the challenge, these two could prove to be an underrated tandem this season. However, if Theodore struggles early on, look for Markstrom to get a chance to play his first full season as the number one goalie in Florida.
Special Teams: This early in the season, power plays are always a team’s biggest question mark. Many are still attempting to implement new systems or slot in new personnel, and this season is no different. The Islanders appear to have more scoring punch up front, but the Panthers boast a variety of riches on the point with Campbell, Jovanovski, and Kulikov who have all quarterbacked power plays. On the penalty kill, the Islanders had two players last year combine for more shorthanded goals than most teams in the league in Frans Neilsen and Michael Grabner. The Panthers added a number of players who have been effective on their various teams in penalty killing roles, but they likely do not have a set rotation from last season like the Islanders.
Coaching: Head Coach Jack Capuano of the Islanders got the opportunity after a strong finish by his squad last year to remove the “interim” title from his role last season, and gets his first shot at a full time NHL coaching gig. He will certainly be looking to prove he belongs, as will new Panthers Head Coach Kevin Dineen, who has taken a step up from coaching the AHL Portland Pirates into the NHL. Capuano does have the advantage of having nearly the same roster as when he took over the helm from Scott Gordon, but Dineen got an entirely new team this summer and would have been dealing with the challenges of a new group of guys in the locker room even if he had been the coach last season. Both men are eager to impress with their first NHL opportunity.
Overall Edge: Islanders
Prediction: The Islanders get off to a fast start, falter in the late second/early third, but manage to re-gain the tempo and come out with an opening night win in front of the home fans, by a score of 5-3.
Lace 'Em Up! Let's Play Hockey!
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