On March 10th, the Islanders began what was supposed to be a four-game road trip with a 5-4 shootout loss to the Canucks in Vancouver. The Islanders did make it to Calgary for their scheduled game on March 12th, but that’s when the NHL season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of the pause, the Islanders had lost seven straight games and found themselves one point out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But 144 days later, more than four and a half months since the last time that they stepped on the ice for a competitive game that had meaning, the Islanders will begin a best of five Stanley Cup Qualifying Round series on Saturday afternoon against the Florida Panthers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Since the last time they played a game, other than Wednesday’s 2-1 exhibition win over the Rangers, the Islanders have benefited from the pause because three injured players, defensemen Adam Pelech and Johnny Boychuck along with forward Casey Cizikas, are all ready to play.
Struggling when the season was suspended, the Islanders are now healthy for a run at the Stanley Cup.
“They’ve been working towards this moment if you will for the last few months really knowing that we were going to get back into it,” said Head Coach Barry Trotz during a Zoom meeting with reporters on Friday. “We’ve put ourselves in as good a place as we can to be our best and hopefully our best is good enough.”
This will be the second time that the Islanders and Panthers have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Back in 2016, the Islanders’ first season at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Isles beat the Panthers in six games, the first time in 23 years that the Islanders won a playoff series. Both teams have a different look four years later, but the Islanders were 3-0 against Florida during the regular season.
On October 12th, the Islanders began a 17-game point streak with a 3-2 shootout win over the Panthers at Nassau Coliseum as Brock Nelson scored the winner in the shootout.
Then at the Barclays Center on November 9th, the Islanders edged the Panthers 2-1 on goals from Mat Barzal and Scott Mayfield while Thomas Greiss made 37 saves.
And the Islanders completed the season sweep on December 12th in Sunrise, Florida with a 3-1 victory thanks to goals from Devon Toews, Mat Barzal and Anders Lee along with 32 saves from Thomas Greiss.
The Islanders registered three wins over Florida in three different arenas and now they can advance to the traditional 16 team playoff field with three more wins over the Panthers in the hub city of Toronto.
“Once the puck is going to be dropped on Saturday, I think we’re just going to try and play our game,” said forward Derick Brassard. “We know what to do to be successful. We just have to focus on what we have to do and play a good sixty-minute game and go from there.”
Had the season not been suspended, the Islanders were in danger of not making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But with the pause came the NHL’s return to play plan that included 24 teams giving the Islanders a new lease on life. With everybody healthy and depth that they didn’t have in mid-March, the Islanders are chomping at the bit to compete for Lord Stanley.
The Islanders are not only looking to hit control-alt-delete on their regular season ending seven-game skid, but they’re also hungry to erase the memory of getting swept by Carolina in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
“It’s been a lot of practice and a long time coming so I don’t think you have to search very far for motivation in this situation,” said Cal Clutterbuck. “It’s an opportunity that you don’t get all of the time.”
The waiting is over. The puck drops on Saturday as the Islanders being their quest for the Stanley Cup against Florida. There will be no fans in the building, so the Islanders will have to create their own energy in the arena while also knowing that there will be plenty of energy from Islanders Country that the players might just be able to feel from more than 500 miles away.