|Isles, Panthers look to shake off rust in series opener|
When the New York Islanders won four consecutive championships from 1980-83, the longest they went between hoisting the Stanley Cup and beginning a title defense was 141 days.
The Florida Panthers' shortest off-season came following their trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, when they had 116 days before the 1996-97 opener.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying: Welcome, Islanders and Panthers, to the strangest and most surreal tournament in NHL history.
The seventh-seeded Islanders and 10th-seeded Panthers will begin their pursuit of the Stanley Cup on Saturday afternoon, when the two teams meet in the opener of a best-of-five Eastern Conference qualifying series in Toronto.
It has been 143 days since the Islanders last played a game that counted, a 5-4 loss at the Vancouver Canucks on March 10. That game was contested on the penultimate night of play in the NHL before the regular season was halted due to the pandemic.
The Panthers played their final regular-season game on March 9, when they skated to a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues.
Neither the Islanders (ninth in points) or Panthers (11th) were in a playoff spot when the regular season was halted. Their seeds for the tournament were determined by their respective point percentages.
Both teams played an exhibition Wednesday. The Islanders posted a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers and the Panthers dropped a 5-0 decision to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While the win didn't count in the standings, it had to feel pretty good for the Islanders. They lost their last seven games (0-3-4) to cap a whirlwind regular season that featured a franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2) from Oct. 12-Nov. 23. New York's last regular-season win was a 4-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 23.
The Islanders will field a far deeper team in August than they did in March. Adam Pelech (Achilles) would have been out for the remainder of the scheduled season while fellow defenseman Johnny Boychuk (eye) and center Casey Cizikas (leg) were each sidelined indefinitely.
"Being off for 4 1/2 months and getting everybody healthy back there, it's a battle and (a) competition," Islanders defenseman Andy Greene said Wednesday night. "We had a good couple weeks of camp and it's good to get the legs under us."
The Panthers were also struggling in their final nine games (3-4-2) prior to the end of the regular season and didn't get the boost they'd like from the exhibition against the Lightning.
"Certainly it was a wake-up call," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hey, this is a day where you can't be happy with the results. We're looking for a better effort across the board."
New York goaltender Semyon Varlamov and Florida's Sergei Bobrovsky are likely to draw the starts Saturday.
Varlamov went 19-14-6 with a 2.62 goals-against average during the regular season and won his lone start against Florida on Oct. 12, when he stopped 35 shots in a 3-2 shootout victory.
Bobrovsky, who missed the final four games due to a lower body injury, went 23-19-6 with a 3.23 goals-against average. He owned an 0-2-0 mark with a 2.05 GAA against New York.
--Field Level Media