The Panthers knew their first-round playoff opponent would hail from the New York metropolitan area.
On Sunday, the question of which New York team Florida would open with was settled. By virtue of their 5-2 loss to visiting Philadelphia, the Islanders will be the Panthers’ first foe in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Panthers will open the series at BB&T Center at 8 p.m. Thursday. Because of a heavily booked Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Game 2 will be played in Sunrise on Friday at 7:30 p.m. with Game 3 in Brooklyn on Sunday at 8 p.m. — meaning three games in four days to kick the series off.
Game 4 is April 20 at 8 p.m. in Brooklyn, Game 5 is April 22 in Sunrise, Game 6 is April 24 in Brooklyn and Game 7 is April 26 in Sunrise.
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Aside for the odd scheduling, both the Panthers and Islanders are probably both happy for this matchup. Florida doesn’t have to face the Rangers — who have won eight of the past nine against the Panthers — and the Islanders now avoid the red-hot Penguins.
The Islanders also move into the Atlantic Division side of the playoff bracket and avoid the Washington Capitals.
Although Florida coach Gerard Gallant dismissed any thought the Islanders or Rangers were deliberately trying to lose their final games to avoid Pittsburgh on Saturday morning, it doesn’t look like the Islanders tried too hard to win just to face a Pittsburgh squad team that beat them 5-0 just last Saturday.
After beating the Rangers on Thursday, the Islanders could have secured third place in the Metropolitan with three points against the Sabres and Flyers.
The Islanders got just one point as they gave up a 2-0 lead to a Flyers team not playing for anything after clinching their postseason spot Saturday.
On Sunday, the Islanders rested a number of top players, including John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen.
“You don’t lose to play somebody else,” the Rangers’ Marc Staal told the New York Post. “If you do that, bad things happen. You play to win. We’re not scared of anybody.”
The Rangers showed they weren’t trying to tank as they beat Detroit 3-2 on Saturday afternoon despite sitting five key players — including Mats Zuccarello, captain Ryan McDonagh and goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Florida has matched up well against the Islanders and took two of three in the season series the past three years.
This year, Florida split the two games in Brooklyn after the Islanders moved to Barclays after 43 years at the Coliseum on Long Island.
Florida’s first win at Barclays on Dec. 15 kicked off the team’s franchise-record 12-game winning streak.
That game came a night after the team reportedly met actor Kevin Spacey at a restaurant in New York during its rookie dinner setting the whole “Spacey In Space” sweatshirt phenomenon in motion.
The Panthers were well on their way to going 3-0 against the Islanders this season as they held a 2-0 lead in Brooklyn on March 14 midway through the third.
New York made it a 2-1 game with 7:10 remaining before tying it and finally taking its first lead on a Cal Clutterbuck backhander with 1:39 remaining.
Now the Panthers know who they have to prepare for.
“We have four days before we play our first game,” said Gallant, whose team finished the best regular season in franchise history with wins in seven of their final nine. “We’ve got to have some good practices, get ready and make sure we’re healthy, get as healthy as possible and get our team going.”
▪ This is only the fifth postseason appearance for the Panthers and third since moving to Sunrise in 1998. Florida hasn’t won a playoff series since beating Jaromir Jagr and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals.
The Panthers have gone 4-11 in playoff games since with series losses to the Rangers (1997) and Devils (2000, 2012). Florida has never faced the Islanders in the postseason. The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since beating Jagr’s Penguins in 1993 — the postseason prior to the Panthers joining the NHL.
▪ Jagr, 44, ended up leading the Panthers in scoring with 66 points this season. Barkov led Florida with a career-best 28 goals as Jagr finished second in that race with 27. Florida had four 25-goal scorers and five 20-goal scorers for the first time in its history. Reilly Smith scored his career-best 25th goal with 5.5 seconds remaining Saturday as Jonathan Huberdeau hit the 20-goal mark for the first time in the second period.