Stop No. 2 on the New York Islanders’ season-opening 13-game road trip will begin on Saturday night against the host Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Fla.
This is the longest road trip in the Islanders’ 49-year history, as construction on their new home arena is completed, and it’s one short of the NHL record 14-game trip faced by the Vancouver Canucks in their 2009-2010 season.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Islanders center Brock Nelson said.
The Islanders, who lost 6-3 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, will also get a challenge from the Panthers, who are coming off a season-opening 5-4 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Florida got two goals each from Carter Verhaeghe and Aaron Ekblad and 43 saves from Sergei Bobrovsky.
“Comeback Cats … we live by that mantra,” said Ekblad, who played his first game since fracturing his ankle last March. “We’ve (rallied) quite a few times the past few years.”
In at least one Las Vegas book, the emerging Panthers — who haven’t won a playoff series since 1996 — are tied for eighth among the NHL’s Stanley Cup favorites.
That’s one spot behind the Islanders, and it shows how hyped this season is for the Panthers.
“I sense a little more hunger,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said.
Even so, there are improvements needed as the Panthers finished just 18th in penalty-killing last season. On Thursday, the Panthers got beat twice on the Pittsburgh power play (in nine chances).
In addition, the Panthers cut loose standout power-play quarterback Keith Yandle after last season. On Thursday, the Panthers went 0-for-6 on their power play, so there is an adjustment to be made there, too.
Meanwhile, the Islanders last season were the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference and No. 2 in the NHL, allowing just 2.23 goals per game. The Islanders do a terrific job of limiting scoring chances by their opposition, and they have a stellar goaltending duo in Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.
However, Varlamov — who had a .929 save percentage last season with an NHL-best seven shutouts — is on the injured list.
Sorokin, a 26-year-old who made his NHL debut last season, is set to get his 23rd league start on Saturday. He allowed five goals on Thursday but proved himself last year with a 2.17 goals-against average in the regular season and four playoff wins against the Penguins.
Cory Schneider, a 35-year-old veteran, is Sorokin’s backup. Schneider enters Saturday with a 2.43 GAA, 26 shutouts and a 170-159-58 career record.
For salary cap reasons, the Islanders had to trade away Nick Leddy after last season, even though he led New York defensemen in points. To replace him, the Islanders signed six-time All-Star Zdeno Chara, who is still contributing at age 44.
Offensively, the Islanders lost top-line winger Jordan Eberle to Seattle in the expansion draft, replacing his production with veterans Zach Parise and Kyle Palmieri.
New York’s Anders Lee, who had season-ending knee surgery in March, is back as is center Mathew Barzal, the Islanders’ top all-around player.
Florida’s top two players are first-line center Aleksander Barkov (two assists on Thursday) and second-line winger Jonathan Huberdeau (one assist).
Bobrovsky will likely start in goal, but Spencer Knight, 20, is also possible. Knight, who was Florida’s first-round pick in 2019, went 4-0-0 with a 2.32 GAA in four games as a rookie last season.
–Field Level Media