John Tavares celebrates with Frans Nielsen (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
New York Islanders captain John Tavares took over Game 1 with one goal and three points in a 5-4 win over the Florida Panthers. If the Panthers can’t slow down the Islanders captain, they could be in trouble by the time the series shifts to Brooklyn.
New York Islanders captain John Tavares was a point per game player over the final two months of the season. He scored 14 goals and 15 assists in 29 games, and were it not for his play there’s reason to wonder whether the Islanders would even be in the post-season.
Well, they are, and Tavares doesn’t seem satisfied with simply putting New York on his back in order to get to the playoffs. In Game 1 of the opening-round series between the Islanders and Florida Panthers, Tavares was the most noticeable player on the ice for either team and at times he looked like a man possessed. Honestly, there were enough great plays from Tavares Thursday night to make a personal highlight reel.
First it was his neutral zone rush to set up Frans Nielsen, then it was Tavares’ game-tying goal with 21.8 seconds left in the second period and he finished it off with a hard-working forechecking play, stripping Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell of the puck to set up Kyle Okposo’s go-ahead goal in the third:
The Islanders were one wild-card team that were undoubtedly going to be a tough draw because Tavares could singlehandedly take over a game. After Game 1, though, the Panthers need to make sure Tavares can't carry this over to Game 2 and take over the entire series. That might be easier said than done, though. Ahead of Game 1, Tavares was nearly a point per game player in the post-season with five goals and 11 points in 13 games, and his three-point night Thursday puts him at 14 points in 14 outings. It's not as if this was a one-game thing for Tavares. He's done this before, and this time it could be series-changing.
That said, even with Tavares already showing off his star power, it’s hard to really call Game 1’s loss a worst-case scenario for the Panthers, especially given Florida dominated the run of play almost from start to finish.
During the regular season, Florida was hardly a dominant puck possession team, finishing 20th in the league with a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 48.7 percent. Thursday night, though, the Panthers were able to control the play at even strength. The Panthers fired 70 shots towards the Islanders’ net while New York mustered only 37 attempts of their own. It’s unlikely that type of possession rate holds over the course of the entire series, but more often than not a team putting up a nearly 66 percent shot attempts for percentage is going to emerge victorious. Game 1 was unfortunately not one of those nights for Florida.
The one thing the Panthers have to hope for, though, is more from netminder Roberto Luongo. The veteran netminder allowed five goals on 26 shots, and the goals by Nielsen, Okposo and Brock Nelson were all stops Luongo could have made. Same goes for the winner by Ryan Strome. The narrative about Luongo’s post-season performances aside, it’s an uncharacteristic outing from Luongo considering how well he played this season. Of the 23 goaltenders to play 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Luongo ranked third — behind only Henrik Lundqvist and Steve Mason — with a .935 save percentage.
So, how do the Panthers get back in this before it's too late? They certainly need to hold leads better -- they blew three leads Thursday night -- but more from Luongo, continued dominance of puck possession and the same offensive punch would be a good recipe. But if Florida can’t find a way to slow down Tavares, the Islanders could be up 2-0 heading back to Brooklyn.