In every playoff matchup, there are certain elements to watch for. For the New York Islanders, as they get set to begin their postseason series against the Florida Panthers Saturday, one could very much be the deciding factor between moving on or going home.
No, it’s not offense or even special teams. What this series will come down to is goaltending and the duel that will take place between Semyon Varlamov/Thomas Greiss and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Isles head coach Barry Trotz said on Monday he still has a decision to make as for who will tab for the start in game one. Both goalies have had previous success against Florida and made a good push for why either of them should get the nod during the team’s short camp in Phase 3. The duo will get time to make one last case tomorrow night in the exhibition game against the Rangers, where afterward, Trotz will most likely make his final call.
From the Panthers’ perspective, Bobrovsky was going to be the clear cut choice. He was their starter for the majority of the year — starting in 50 games — after signing that massive contract last summer and got them to the postseason. Oh, he’s also a two-time Vezina Trophy winner.
So why is it the key matchup for both squads? Goaltending can steal or win you a series in the playoffs.
Time and time again, we’ve seen over the years what a hot goaltender can do for a team. The Isles saw it first-hand last year with Robin Lehner in the first round against Pittsburgh. They also witnessed Greiss do the same four years ago in a series against those same Panthers. Greiss stood on his and helped the Islanders win their first playoff series in 23 years.
That was then; this is now. And it could turn out to be the same or something totally different.
In the series four years ago, Greiss outplayed Roberto Luongo, who was a future Hall of Famer, then and nearing the tail end of his career. This upcoming series, Varlamov or Greiss will be opposed by Bobrovsky, who is in his prime and in the first year of his long-term deal.
Another factor to keep in mind is that all Varlamov and Bobrovsky do have some added pressure. While it’s Greiss who could be playing with house money.
Florida brought the 31-year-old Bobrovsky in for the exact situation they are in now and from what they witnessed last spring as well as when he was on top of his game this season. Bobrovsky needs to play well, not only to justify the Panthers handing him that deal, but also show he’s buried his past playoff demons deep into the ground.
Varlamov’s job, even though he also signed a five-year deal last offseason, as the starter isn’t solidified. All year he and Greiss traded starts back and forth as a 1A-1B tandem. Varlamov did have some great stretches of play but also had some really tough ones. And just like Trotz did during the year, if he sees Varlamov struggle early or the Islanders lose one of the first three games, Greiss will get the call to replace him.
Transitioning to Greiss, this might be his last go-around as an Islander with him being a UFA after this season ends and with the club’s recent signing of 24-year-old prospect Ilya Sorokin. So if he gets the nod, it could mean a new contract a few months from now, whether it’s from the Isles or another team.
The goaltending in the Isles-Panthers series won’t be the sexiest facet to watch, but it will be the most important. It’s as split down the middle as any of the other matchups in the qualifying round. All three goalies are capable of deciding the series in one way or another.
Does one team have a significant advantage over the other? We’ll get our answer very soon.