New York hockey officially returned last night, as the Islanders and Rangers played their only exhibition game in Toronto. The 2-1 result in the Islanders’ favor doesn’t matter at all for now, and only time will tell if it matters at all when play begins for real on Saturday.
The Islanders did some good things, and some distressing things. But, all those things were expected given they hadn’t played a competitive game as a group in almost four months. This will be similar across all eight of the teams that will be participating in a ‘qualifying round’ before deciding who gets the chance to finalize the round-of-16.
If you equate a typical NHL season ending without making the playoffs in early April, that gives teams five months before their next game against actual opposition and that is an exhibition season in September. So, expect the games in this initial round to be sloppy and riddled with mistakes on both sides of the puck. Which team makes less of them will be the team advancing in the best-of-five. The margin of victory against defeat will be slim, at best.
In their series against the Florida Panthers, who are an equally skilled, but slower team than the Rangers, the Islanders will likely grind the series to a halt, like how they played last night. Their defensive structure was sound, there were not many egregious turnovers, and they held the best player on the ice for either team, Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin, to no shots on goal in 22 minutes of ice time.
Semyon Varlamov played two periods, likely signaling that he will be the game one starter on Saturday, and had a sequence in the second period where he went pad stack to deny Jesper Fast with a remarkable save. Brock Nelson had a solid game and was 12-5 on faceoffs, and Andy Greene and Noah Dobson looked sound in their bid to grasp some ice time over the course of the series, but the Islanders’ top defensive pair struggled and the Mathew Barzal line, save for a few moments, struggled to get anything going.
The power play, which struggled and mirrored the goal-scoring problem the team had this year, moved the puck extremely well, but once again got zero reward. Special teams tend to play a larger factor in the playoffs and this year will be no different. With choppy ice in the later games adding to the issue, puck movement will play a secondary role to throwing puck after puck at the net, towards a goaltender that has seen little game action since March. The Islanders, last night, generated only 22 shots on goal and 46 attempts.
One player who appeared extremely lively and could be an X-factor for the Islanders was Anthony Beauvillier, who seems to get better each time you blink your eyes. The speedy and shifty 23-year old sniped a beauty off a wonderful stretch pass by Greene to give the Islanders the lead in the second period. Beauvillier had 18 goals in 68 games when play was halted and would have surely beat his career high, set two seasons ago (21).
This series won’t be the prettiest of all the qualifiers. For the Islanders to defeat the Panthers, they are going to need the timely goals, because we all know it’s not going to come easy, and they’re not going to come in bunches. And if I’m wrong about that, and they get into a track meet with the Panthers, the Islanders likely end up with a one-in-eight chance at the number one overall selection in the upcoming entry draft.