Through the first four games of the conference semifinal series between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders, it looked as if the Isles were going to make quick work of their friends from eastern Pennsylvania. But after two thrilling victories for the Flyers, here we are: with a Game 7 to decide which team will go on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning and which team will be banished from the bubble.
Who will win the game, and which players will have an outsize impact (positively or negatively)? Our panelists offer up their takes on Saturday's clash.
Who will be the X factor in deciding the winner of Game 7 of the Flyers-Islanders series?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Carter Hart. Let's take a second to just appreciate this storybook moment for Philadelphia. It's a city with a decades-long carousel in net, and finally, the organization's prized prospect has arrived. Hart not only betters his childhood idol (Carey Price) in the first round but is now on the verge of bringing his team to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the decade. After the 22-year-old made 49 saves in a double-overtime, must-win Game 6, the spotlight is back on him.
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Mathew Barzal. The Islanders star has two goals and four assists in six games against the Flyers, and looks dangerous every time he touches the puck. To wit: The Islanders had a 42-15 shot attempt advantage when Barzal was on the ice in Game 6 at 5-on-5. Game 7 is going to be a tightly played pressure cooker. Barzal is just the player to break through with a key goal at a key time.
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects analyst: The Isles' starting goalie. At least in this series, the Islanders' goaltending situation is a moving target. After another rough start, Semyon Varlamov might not be the best option for the Islanders, especially since Thomas Greiss has had two quality starts in the series. But the decision is not necessarily cut and dried. Varlamov has been the go-to goaltender for much of the postseason, while Greiss has appeared in only two games. With the season on the line, do the Isles go away from their No. 1? It's Barry Trotz's most important decision yet.
Sachin Chandan, fantasy hockey editor: Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Pageau initially struggled after his trade to the Islanders but has been a bright spot since those days, with three goals this series from the third line. Pageau offers offensive and defensive production, as he's the only Islander to log 25 minutes each on the power play and penalty kill in the playoffs. That kind of all-around play is critical to grind out a Game 7 win.
What's your pick on the game?
Kaplan: Islanders 3, Flyers 1. I love the Flyers' moxie to come back from a 3-1 deficit, and no doubt they got a huge boost from having Oskar Lindblom back in the lineup. But don't let the five goals in Game 6 fool you; this offense isn't generating much these days. Philly generated just 31 shots -- over nearly five periods -- and had 30 giveaways in the game. The Islanders have better structure; they have more offensive firepower right now (surprising, but that's where we're at); and I expect their goalies to rebound.
Wyshynski: Flyers 4, Islanders 3. I picked the Islanders in this series, but I'm more than a little nervous about that now. They gave Philadelphia their best shot in Game 6, with their widest shot-attempt and shots-on-goal advantages of the series. The Flyers still prevailed. Trotz is a heck of a coach who very well could give this team what it needs to hear before another stout effort in Game 7. But you have to start wondering whether there might be a sense that the Islanders missed their chance to take out the Flyers when they had them staggering.
Peters: Flyers 4, Islanders 2. The Islanders have outplayed the Flyers even in their defeats, but Hart seemed to hit his stride in this series in Game 6. Throughout his young career, he has risen to the occasion under the brightest lights and under the most pressure. On top of that, the Flyers' big guns are starting to wake up a little bit, with Claude Giroux finally getting on the board, on top of the more consistent contributions from the likes of Kevin Hayes and Scott Laughton, who have been menaces to the Isles in this series of late.
Chandan: Islanders 4, Flyers 3 (OT). The series is tied 3-3, but each of the Flyers' wins has been in OT and the Islanders have outscored the Flyers 20-16 overall in this series. The Flyers' offense can be streaky, and the Islanders have been defensively stout, so I'm picking them here by the slimmest of margins.