An ongoing theme with this look at the playoffs is that most of the series have been very close, even the ones that didn’t appear to be competitive going by the results. This trend continues with our look at the first round matchup between the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders, which was won by the Islanders in six games. If you were looking for a tight series then this was the one for you, as five games were decided by one goal and half of them needed overtime to decide a winner, two of them going to multiple overtime periods. On paper, it did not look like much separated these two teams and the Islanders only came out on top thanks to an amazing performance by their captain & best player John Tavares in Game 6.
In a league where scoring is at a premium and game-breakers are hard to find, it’s easy to look at Tavares’ three goals and seven points and say that was the difference, but is it really that simple? Florida doesn’t have Tavares, but their roster has more than a few players who I would consider difference makers. After all, their first line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr was one of the best in hockey for most of the year and they have an emerging star on their blue line in Aaron Ekblad, so they had enough to match the Islanders. What went wrong for Florida and was this series as even as the results indicate?
I hate using the word “weird” to describe a playoff series, but I’m not sure how else to describe this. Florida outplayed the Islanders at even strength and the Islanders were the “better team” in two out of the six games. They were dominated in territorial play, were outchanced by a pretty wide margin and were far less effective at moving the puck around in the offensive zone to create chances. It wasn’t like score effects was the cause of this either because Florida was playing with a lead or with the score tied for a majority of the series. They just couldn’t score enough, which is what it came down to. They did outscore at the Islanders by three at five-on-five but relative to the volume of shots they were creating, Florida could have scored a lot more. They shot at only 5.34%, which is obviously below average so they were definitely snake-bitten in this regard.
Oddly enough, you can make the same argument for the Islanders, who shot at only 4.32% at five-on-five and had a much more difficult time creating any sort of offense when they weren’t on the power play. So, it ended up being a very low-scoring series and it takes a bounce or two to get an advantage when you’re in an environment like this. The Islanders ended up on the better end of that in a few areas, the three overtime wins being the most obvious one. Not that Florida didn’t have their chances to do the same (see Aleksander Barkov’s OT penalty shot in Game 5), they just couldn’t buy a goal when they needed it.
That brings us to our next difference maker, which ended up being Islander goaltender Thomas Greiss. Both he and Florida goalie Roberto Luongo had strong numbers at five-on-five, but when you compare the workloads, it’s hard not to marvel at Greiss’ performance. He was outstanding for the Islanders, being forced to make over 40 saves in three of their wins and was arguably their most important player next to Tavares. He may have been even more important when you factor in how little offense the Isles were generating at even strength.
When you have a team getting outshot & outchanced as badly as the Isles were this series, goaltending is often the x-factor and as good as Greiss was, Luongo was just as good. He posted a better save percentage at even strength and his .934 overall save percentage would have been enough to carry the Panthers to the second around against almost anyone else. The Islanders just had a brief edge on the power play, scoring five PPGs compared to Florida’s two and got the bounces to go their way in overtime (which included another power play goal). New York also played some of their best hockey in overtime, outshooting Florida 39-32 after regulation, so they improved when they needed to and returned the favor to Greiss after being on the wrong end of the shot clock for most of the series.
It’s a little interesting that the Islanders had so much trouble generating shots & chances at even strength because this is something they were very strong at last year. They fell off a bit this year, despite having another 100-point season, and were 18th in the NHL in Score Adjusted Fenwick so this wasn’t a new problem. They were also dealing with an assortment of injuries (Anders Lee & Mikhail Grabovski being the most notable), but Florida wasn’t at 100% either and both teams were roughly the same at controlling territorial play during the regular season. Why did this end up being so lopsided at even strength?
Again, the Islanders possession problems aren’t a new problem, as they took a major step back here this year and were a bottom-ten team in Score Adjusted Fenwick after the trade deadline. Add in the forward injuries they were dealing with and you’d expect Florida to have the advantage with the additions they made at the deadline. Was either team doing something system-wise that led to the result? Let’s find out.
5v5 Zone Entries
Most shot generation stems from how a team attacks and defends the neutral zone, which is why we’ve looked at zone entries in every series so far. We know that more shots, chances & goals are created by zone entries with possession of the puck as opposed to entries done by dumping the puck in. Referring back to our shot chart at the beginning of the post, you’ll notice that both teams created the majority of their shots off carry-ins. However, it was a much lower percentage compared to other teams we’ve looked at in the past. This is the first time neither team created at least 50% of their shots off carry-ins and both teams were more reliant on turnovers to create their offense than anyone else we’ve looked at so far. This indicates that both teams might have been playing a lot of dump-and-chase this series. Is that true?
To answer the previous question, it’s mostly true. Both teams were dumping the puck in on a majority of their entries, but the Islanders relied on it a lot more than the Panthers. They dumped the puck in on over 60% of their entries and it explains some of their shot generation problems. It doesn’t look like a huge differential in terms of shots per entry, but it eventually adds up when you’re dumping the puck in on such a high percentage of your entries and not getting a lot of shots out of it.
The Isles going with such a dump-heavy approach was a little weird to watch since it seems to play into Florida’s hand. They’re the bigger team and do more of their damage in the cycle game, whereas the Isles are built more to attack in transition, their fourth line not withstanding. Jack Capuano seemed adamant about getting the puck behind Florida’s defense as the base of their attack, though. Hard to tell if this was a system change or a game plan for just Florida, but it was very different from how the Islanders approached the neutral zone compared to previous seasons. Some might argue that they had success with it because they scored more goals via dump-ins than by carrying the puck in, but they had only seven goals off entries for the entire series, which isn’t a lot and Florida actually outscored them here.
Islanders 5v5 Zone Entries
With the Islanders playing so much dump-and-chase, it’s not a surprise to see most of their players with low carry-in rates. Who some of those players are is the shocking part, though. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson are all normally very strong on entries but all three opted to dump the puck in more times than not. Nielsen was moved around a bit, starting the series on Tavares’ wing but was moved to center with Kulemin & Bailey, so perhaps that had a little to do with it. Still, Nielsen having comparable numbers to the Isles fourth liners probably should never happen regardless of what their strategy was.
It’s a shame because Nielsen and Okposo on Tavares’ wing have the potential to be lethal in all three zones and they did combine for a couple of goals earlier in the series, but Tavares seemed like the only one with freedom to do what he wanted in the neutral zone. Everyone else resorted to playing a safer game more times than not, which is too bad because all three had a pretty big role when it came to zone entries and the wingers could have done more. Oddly enough, Nielsen’s replacement on Tavares’ left wing, Alan Quine, was more effective at carrying the puck in, albeit with a much smaller workload. Also joining JT at the top of the list is newcomer Shane Prince, who acquitted himself nicely in this series on the Isles third line.
Tavares is clearly the Isles standout in terms of neutral zone play but not far behind him is defenseman Nick Leddy, who was more effective than most of the Isles forwards at creating entries. Whether he was the extra attacker joining the rush or starting one on his own, Leddy was a huge difference maker this series. Having a defenseman who can skate and handle the puck like him adds another dimension to your attack and it seemed like Capuano gave him and Tavares more freedom to do what they want with the puck than the rest of the team. It’s a smart play too because I can’t imagine how this series would have ended up if the Isles didn’t have Leddy. He, Tavares and Greiss were the Isles best players at even strength.
Florida 5v5 Zone Entries
Unlike the Islanders, Florida’s neutral zone approach was a little less uniform. The first line had the freedom to make plays at the blue line and they pretty much carried the puck in at will, with the exception of Jagr who still had a pretty high Carry-in Percentage. The same can be said for the majority of their top-nine, as most of the players in this group posted very strong Carry-in rates. Or at least everyone who they intended to have in their top-nine did. They had some trouble rounding out their third line due to some injuries. Vincent Trocheck didn’t play until Game 5 and Rocco Grimaldi was taken out of the lineup after Game 2. Derek Mackenzie replaced him in Game 3 and they used a combination of Barkov & Bjugstad there in Game 4 before Trocheck returned. Unfortunately for Florida, Bjugstad was injured in Game 5 and Logan Shaw became their third line center for Game 6.
So, while that situation ended up being kind of a mess, Florida still received solid performances from their best players. The only player who I expected to carry the puck in more is Jussi Jokinen but his linemates helped make up the difference, as both Smith & Bjugstad were among Florida’s best players at entries. With their first line being unable to buy a goal, this line was Florida’s best in terms of production and it was more than just a fluke. It also shows how much Bjugstad’s injury hurt the Panthers. Not having Trocheck in the lineup for most of the series was mitigated because Bjugstad was playing so well in his place.
The only downside to Florida’s performance in the neutral zone is that it’s a little top heavy. Their first two lines were excellent but injuries made their third line kind of a jigsaw puzzle. Grimaldi’s numbers are inflated from not playing a lot, granted he did pretty well in this area of the game when he got to play, and Hudler was woefully ineffective this series. Purcell was the only regular member of this line to be driving much of anything and he didn’t have a huge role in the neutral zone, so he ended up not having much of an impact here. Meanwhile, the fourth liners all played dump-and-chase like they’re expected to.
Florida’s defense also played a lot of dump-and-chase with two of their regulars (Petrovic & Gudbranson) not carrying the puck in once all series. Their defensemen didn’t have that big of a role on zone entries in general, as Dmitry Kulikov’s 11.2 Entries/60 was the highest on the team. They also didn’t have a defenseman that joined the rush & led entries as effectively as Leddy did for the Islanders, but there are very few players who are as good as him in that area. Michael Matheson & Aaron Ekblad showed flashes of being that type of player, though and the former was very impressive after he was inserted into the lineup. Brian Campbell used to be this player for Florida and while he was effective at generating carry-ins when he had the puck, he wasn’t tasked with doing much work in the neutral zone. This is a little surprising with the minutes he plays and how much Florida usually relies on him.
Offensive Zone Play/Passes
This is a look at how each player performed individually in terms of creating shots & setting them up. The most effective offensive players are located in the upper right hand part of the graph while the primary shooters & passers are located in the upper left and lower right part of the graph respectively. The players in the lower left quadrant of the graph were the least effective offensive players. You can see the Islanders have a lot of guys in this section including a couple of top-sixers (Josh Bailey & Nikolay Kulemin). This was the line that produced the overtime-winning goal in Game 3, but they did next to nothing offensively aside from that. Brock Nelson was the only on that line doing anything and he did a lot of it on his own, as six of his 14 shot attempts were unassisted.
Joining Nelson on the positive side of the graph are Kyle Okposo, Nick Leddy, John Tavares and Thomas Hickey. The latter isn’t known as an offensive defenseman but he was very effective at getting open in the offensive zone and setting plays up. He was pretty aggressive with his pinches in the offensive zone, too and he showed great awareness on his overtime goal in Game 3. It’s also nice to see both Okposo & Nielsen here, as it helps make up for some of their conservative play in the neutral zone and Nielsen was still very effective as a passer.
Another strong passer for the Isles was Shane Prince, who setup more shots relative to his ice time than anyone else on the Isles. He’s certainly not the first name I would have thought of here even when taking ice time into account, but he’s a quick, skilled player and was very good at setting up plays with a rotating cast of linemates. You’ll also notice Alan Quine standout as a shooter here.
Now, the question is how different would this graph look if we limit it to just scoring chances?
A few things happened. First of all, Nelson ends up being the most impressive player at setting up & creating chances through this. He didn’t play as much as Tavares, but he did make the most out of the ice time he got. Again, a lot of it was without the help of his linemates, as Kulemin & Bailey find themselves bunched together with half of the Isles roster in the lower left quadrant. Shane Prince, however, remains the same and it shows he was doing more than just setting up low percentage shots. Moving to a line with Prince definitely helped Nelson’s play a bit. Alan Quine also stands out here, as he basically had one role: shoot the puck. Hard to say he didn’t do his job if that was the case. Hickey also finds himself in a good spot as the Islanders most effective defenseman at finishing chances.
Florida’s top-six finds themselves in a good spot here with Nick Bjugstad standing out in a huge way. It’s not often that the team’s best shooter is also their best passer, but that was the case here as Bjugstad did it all this series. It’s interesting to see him so above his linemates, but he shoots the puck more often than anyone else on the team, which means he takes a lot of unassisted shots (he had eight this series) and he did a great job of locating Reilly Smith to setup shots. Smith had the hot hand for the first three games of the series and Bjugstad was a big part of it, as seven of Smith’s shots came of a direct pass from him. It’s too bad he got hurt because that line was doing some major damage for the Panthers.
Not to be forgotten is their first line of Barkov, Huberdeau & Jagr, who were threats both in terms of finishing and setting up plays. Huberdeau ended up having more shots & passes relative to his ice time and was neck-and-neck with Barkov as the best player on this line. He had only one goal and three points to show for his efforts but anyone who says he wasn’t effective wasn’t paying attention.
Florida’s offensive zone graph looks pretty similar to how they performed in the neutral zone with the final results being pretty top-heavy. Their top-six is excellent but the supporting cast ended up being pretty mediocre. Third liners Jiri Hudler & Teddy Purcell are both in interesting spots. As bad as Hudler was in the neutral zone, he was useful as a passing option for Florida and was able to setup Purcell a few times. Purcell looks pretty mediocre compared to his teammates, as he finds himself in the middle of the graph right next to Logan Shaw.
It also shows the impact of the Bjugstad injury. As good as Florida’s line was at creating shots & chances, they were snake-bitten and couldn’t buy a goal. The second line picked up the slack and they had the potential to be three lines deep after Trocheck returned. Unfortunately, Bjugstad got hurt shortly after and they were right back to where they started with their third line being a black hole. You could argue they were worse because Trocheck likely wasn’t at 100% and Bjugstad was playing some of the best hockey on the team.
Also similar to their neutral zone play, Florida’s blue line didn’t create much offensively with the exception of Ekblad and, to a lesser extent, Kulikov. It’s a little weird to see Campbell be so quiet offensively considering his skillset and how good of a skater he is, but his impact now is more on breakouts than anything else these days.
After limiting it to just scoring chances, we’re left with a pretty different looking graph. Trocheck stands out more as a passer while Huberdeau occupies the prime spot on the far right of the graph. Bjugstad takes a step back as he stands out more as a shooter while Barkov takes his spot in the upper right. The overall jist of it is the same, though. Florida’s top-six are the main standouts while their depth forwards and defense are bunched together in the lower left. The volume isn’t there like it was before, but Jagr, Huberdeau, Barkov, Bjugstad & Smith were all very good at generating dangerous shots. The one newcomer is Logan Shaw, whose numbers are inflated from a small sample of ice time & shots to work with. He did have a couple of good rushes and was strong at driving the net, though.
Also, if you’re wondering where Thornton, Grimaldi & Kindl are, they didn’t have any scoring chances so I just removed them to get rid of the clutter.
The Final Word
If there’s a series that deserves the “weird” label, this is it. It’s not abnormal for a team to lose a series while outchancing & outshooting the opponent by a significant margin, but to have that happen while leading for the majority of the time is just plain bizarre. Florida probably deserved a better outcome but they just couldn’t buy a goal and that’s really all there is to it. Greiss had the series of his life and Luongo almost matched him, so this coming down to three overtime games is an appropriate ending.
Maybe Florida advances if they have a little more depth? Easy to make the argument in hindsight because they probably didn’t plan on their top line going through a dry spell at the worst time or losing one of their best centers mid-series. Still, the third and fourth lines didn’t do much and maybe Florida gets through if they get a little more out of them? Then again, they would have won this series if Greiss didn’t turn into a brick wall for Games 5 & 6 regardless of what their fourth line looked like. The Islanders just had the bounces go their way and had better special teams, which was enough with how low-scoring of a series this ended up being.