Game 1 between the New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers was surrounded with story lines, mostly about who was not in the line up for New York and whether they could keep pace with the young and energetic Panthers. Luckily, John Tavares was both in the lineup and ready to carry his team to a wild 5-4 road win and a 1-0 lead in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Islanders began the game with some notable absences including Anders Lee and Mikhail Grabovski, a beat up Travis Hamonic and a goalie in Thomas Greiss who had done anything but instill confidence in replacing the injured Jaroslav Halak over the last month of the season. Things got off to a rocky start when Jiri Hudler fed Teddy Purcell after a bad read by Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuck just 1:55 into the game. With the inexperienced lineup, the one thing the Islanders could ill-afford was poor play from their playoff veterans and the whiff on Hudler by Boychuck suggested a long night was in store for the visitors. However, about 5 minutes later, Boychuck redeemed himself by jumping Hudler in the neutral zone allowing Ryan Strome to feed a cutting Brock Nelson who rifled one by Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, tying the game at 1.
Greiss made a handful of clumsy yet crucial saves during a wave by the Panthers. But while the Islanders veterans were struggling to find their game, two of the Panthers’ old guys combined for a power play goal when Jussi Jokinen deflected Brian Campbell‘s point shot for a 2-1 Panthers lead. That’s when the Islanders captain took control.
First, it was a coast to coast rush with two wonderful dekes and a fake shot to turn the Panthers defense in circles, before feeding Frans Neilsen for the goal with a couple minutes left in the first period. Then after an early goal in the second by Florida’s Reilly Smith, Neilsen forced a turnover on the forecheck, getting the puck to Kyle Okposo who found Tavares on the door step to tie the game at 3 with under a minute left before the break. All of this following a scary moment where Tavares left the Islanders bench momentarily after taking a shot to the back of the ankle and limping off the ice.
The Islanders were glad that #91 returned as he continued to exude energy, leading an excellent forecheck that eventually gave the Islanders their first lead of the game. Tavares’ tireless pressure eventually forced a turnover from Campbell, setting up Okposo to give the Islanders a 4-3 lead. His team began to follow along as Nick Leddy took a massive hit but got a pass to rookie Alan Quine who made a nifty move into the offensive zone before getting a shot off allowing Strome to put home the rebound and extend the lead to 5-3.
Greiss gave up one more goal to Jokinen but by then it seemed like the Islanders had found their legs and kept the Panthers at bay for most of the third period. The Panthers had a glorious opportunity with Luongo pulled when the ageless wonder, Jaromir Jagr, found himself on the doorstep but was stuffed by Greiss.
Greiss finished the game with 42 saves, not always looking comfortable, but making saves when his team required them. However, the story was always going to be John Tavares, who was named the #1 Star of the Game with a goal, two assists and winning almost 70% of his face offs in addition to the intangibles he brought to the ice. The Islanders are going to be in any series with Tavares leading the charge, and it will be imperative for Florida to find a way to stop him if they want to move on to the second round. The teams go back-to-back, playing Game 2 on Friday night at the BB&T Center.