Florida Panthers (Atlantic Division champions) versus New York Islanders (first Eastern Conference wild card)
This is going to be one of the most exciting series of the first round. Why? Both of these teams are hungry for postseason glory. The Panthers have showcased their ability for the majority of this season, while the Islanders are a gritty and dangerous team. This is only the second time in 15 seasons that the Panthers have made the playoffs, and with the way they've played, it could be the first time in nearly 20 years that they have the potential to advance past the first round. This is only the third time in nine seasons that the Islanders have reached the playoffs, and if there's a team that can beat the Panthers in the first round, it is New York.
How they win
Florida: This is a very good, dangerous and motivated team. The Panthers have a solid mix of veterans and young talent. Most think Florida surprised by winning the Atlantic, and even though the division wasn't strong, the Panthers have shown the past two seasons that they have the ability and talent to be successful. Veteran and two-time Stanley Cup champion Shawn Thornton admitted as much a season ago, when he said the Panthers are better than most think and the team is not too far from competing in the postseason. Well, that time is now. A solid core of veterans Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Thornton and Jussi Jokinen combined with an enormous amount of young talent that includes Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau makes this a tough team to beat.
New York: This team has a similar identity as its coach, Jack Capuano: gritty, hard-nosed, with an us-against-them mentality. The Islanders play a speed-and-pace game, similar to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders are strong on faceoffs and a good puck-possession team. The keys to their game are transition and speed. If they can get solid goaltending and translate that into timely offense, there's a possibility they could win this series.
How they lose
Florida: Can veterans Jagr and Luongo endure the grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs? The most recent time Jagr played in the postseason was with the Boston Bruins during their Cup run in 2013. He played 22 games and had zero goals and 10 assists. Even though he works out nonstop, he was gassed by the finals that year. It will be a challenge for the older players on the team. For the younger guys, can they step up and meet the challenge? Barkov is a key two-way player for the Panthers. He's a star. Huberdeau and Ekblad have zero NHL playoff experience; how will they respond to the NHL playoffs?
New York: Goaltending will be a huge challenge. With Jaroslav Halak injured, the Islanders will lean on Thomas Greiss between the pipes. He's been solid with a 23-11-4 record, but he has only one game of playoff experience, with the San Jose Sharks in 2010. This will come down to how well the Islanders can defend against a team such as the Panthers.
The Panthers were 31-10-6 this season when Jagr recorded a point and 18-2-2 when he scored a goal. The 44-year-old hasn't played in the postseason since 2013, when he was with the Bruins. It'll be interesting to see how he performs this spring.
Florida: Barkov has been on fire of late, with 13 points during a career-high nine-game point streak. He recorded 17 points in the past 15 games and should continue that into the postseason. If the Panthers win this series, he will be a major factor. He's an elite player in the making.
New York: This one will come down to the captain, John Tavares. He has been solid of late, posting nine points in the past five games, and he understands that it's all on his shoulders. This is his opportunity to shine, and he needs to step up in a big way. If the Islanders win this series, it will be based on his play.
As much as I would like to pick the Islanders in this series, the Panthers are motivated and poised to advance. Panthers in 7.