By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
The Flyers got a healthy introduction to playoff hockey against a surprising Montreal Canadiens team, who as a 12-seed shocked the Pittsburgh Penguins and then took the Flyers to six games. It was very reminiscent of some of the Flyers recent playoff appearances, where they would sometimes be a surprising entry to the playoff picture and extend a series beyond expectations.
Now the Flyers are one of eight teams remaining, and they get to go against an old foe behind the bench, one who has been in the division for years, but this time with a new team. It’s been over 30 years since the Flyers have faced the New York Islanders in the playoffs and each time the stakes have been high.
This series is no different, as the Flyers look to make their deepest run in the playoffs in a decade.
Here are five storylines to watch in the upcoming series between the Flyers and Islanders.
1. Elite Coaching Matchup
If the last series presented a dream matchup in goal, this one presents a dream matchup behind the bench.
Alain Vigneault has been a head coach at the NHL level for 17 years and has done everything but win a Stanley Cup. For a while, that was also the knock on Barry Trotz’s career.
Vigneault is 10th all-time among NHL coaches with 689 wins. Trotz ranks fourth with 845 wins, just four behind Ken Hitchcock for third all-time. Trotz also has the one thing Vigneault does not, a Stanley Cup win from 2018 with the Washington Capitals.
Trotz brought that pedigree to the Islanders, the defensive style he employs that has always made his teams competitive. Vigneault has gotten the Flyers to buy into his style as well, and the Flyers have been a much better team as a result.
Both coaches are demanding of their players, always seeming to know when to step in, what buttons to push and how to be good communicators. This is truly a Hall-of-Fame coaching matchup.
2. New Chapter of Long History
For a lot of Flyers fans, this is a new playoff matchup. The last time the Flyers and Islanders met in the playoffs was in 1987, so it’s been a while, 33 years to be exact. But there have been some classic series between the two teams.
The first time the two teams met in the playoffs was in 1975, right in the middle of the Flyers reign as Stanley Cup champions. A trip to the Stanley Cup Final in ‘75 was on the line. The Flyers rolled in the first three games, winning 4-0, 5-4 in overtime, and 1-0. Then the Islanders took Game 4 in overtime, 4-3. They hammered the Flyers, 5-1, in Game 5. They pushed the series to the brink with a 2-1 win in Game 6.
On the verge of being one of the infamous teams that blew a 3-0 series lead, the Flyers came back in Game 7 and took a convincing 4-1 win to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, where they would win their second straight Stanley Cup.
The last two meetings between the two in the playoffs have come in the exact same spot as now, the second round of the playoffs, then known as the conference semi-finals.
In 1985, the Flyers made quick work of the Islanders, again opening up a 3-0 series lead, dropping Game 4, and finishing things off with a 1-0 win in Game 5. They would advance to the Stanley Cup Final that season.
In 1987, the Flyers opened up a 3-1 series lead with wins in Games 1, 3 and 4. The Islanders got a close 2-1 win in Game 5 and a 4-2 win in Game 6 to push the series to Game 7, where the Flyers again won convincingly, 5-1. They would advance to the Stanley Cup Final that season as well.
But the most famous meeting between these two teams in the playoffs was in the 1980 Stanley Cup Final. Most people can tell you about that series with one name. Leon Stickle.
The series was a battle, with the Islanders winning Game 1, 4-3, in overtime and the Flyers matching with an 8-3 win in Game 2. The Islanders took the next two games in convincing fashion at 5-2 and 6-2 finals, before the Flyers rebounded with a 6-3 win in Game 5.
That set up Game 6, where the Flyers scored first, but fell behind 2-1 on a goal that should have been whistled for offside. The Flyers rallied to tie the game at two before the first period ended, then watched future Hall-of-Famer Mike Bossy and Bob Nystrom score in the second to open up a 4-2 lead. Goals by Bob Dailey and John Paddock tied the game in the third and forced overtime, where Nystrom scored the Cup-clinching goal at 7:11 of overtime to win the series for the Islanders.
In each of the seasons the Flyers have faced the Islanders, they reached the Stanley Cup. They have a 3-1 record against the Islanders in the history between them, and another excellent chapter figures to be written with this series.
3. More Tight-Checking Hockey
If you thought the last series against Montreal was full of tight-checking, lock-down style hockey, wait until you see this series. This is the Barry Trotz playbook.
The Islanders are a hard-hitting and physical team that uses it to create offense. They put the focus on being a presence in all zones and coaxing you into that style. Space is sure to be limited and the Flyers will need to keep the simple approach on offense.
The Islanders can be prone to turnovers, but don’t give up an abundance of shots. They have a dedicated group of players who know how to protect the goalie and make it difficult to get much in terms of quality.
Perhaps what makes this a concerning matchup is that the Islanders sure know their identity as a team, with that energy and physicality. The Flyers had carved out that identity as well, but struggled in the series against Montreal to really get anything going offensively. If they struggled there, they need to figure it out in a hurry in this series. You certainly can’t have your top players held off the board for too long.
4. Battle of Depth
On paper, the Flyers were clearly the team with more depth than the Canadiens. Against the Islanders, it’s virtually an even playing field.
The Flyers were able to shuffle up the lines and have the likes of James van Riemsdyk, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Derek Grant, Michael Raffl, Nate Thompson, Tyler Pitlick and Connor Bunnaman to fill the bottom-six roles on the roster. In the playoffs, they have gotten offensive production from Raffl and Aube-Kubel and both Grant and Pitlick helped set up a goal in the deciding Game 6.
The Islanders bolstered their depth with the trade-deadline acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau to go along with other veterans in the bottom six like Derick Brassard, Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas.
Both teams have seven defensemen who could be regulars in any NHL lineup and their top-six is loaded with talent. The Flyers need to start seeing more out of Travis Konecny, Claude Giroux and Scott Laughton, and started to get the production needed from Jake Voracek, Kevin Hayes and Sean Couturier. The Islanders have an absolute stud in Mathew Barzal and pieces that compliment him well, including captain Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey.
There is a lot of talent on both of these rosters, and it will certainly make for some great hockey.
5. Regular-Season Revenge
The Flyers faced the Islanders three times in the regular season and lost each time, but there are some key differences between then and now.
The first time the Flyers and Islanders met this season, the Flyers were less than a month into the season and still trying to come together as a team. They struggled in the back-end of a back-to-back and three straight goals in the first and two more in the second, leading to a 5-3 final.
In the second meeting, the Flyers looked like the more determined bunch, continuing their strong start to November – they had a 5-1-2 record to that point in the month – and opening up a 3-0 lead on the Islanders through two periods. But the Islanders rallied in the third, getting three goals and tying the game with 2:04 remaining. They won in a shootout that lasted just two rounds.
In mid-February, the Flyers faced the Islanders again and got off to a terribly slow start, allowing three goals in the first period. They scored twice in 2:22 in the second to cut the lead down to one, then tied the game with a goal by Sean Couturier with 1:32 to play. Just when it seemed like overtime was coming up, the Flyers got penned into the defensive zone on the next shift, and Ryan Pulock scored with 38.9 seconds remaining to put the Islanders back on top. An empty-net goal iced the result.
That was really the closest look the Islanders got to the Flyers as they were going into the break. The Flyers won 10 of their next 12 games before the pause hit. The Islanders went 2-7-4 following that win over the Flyers.
Of course, now that the pause happened and the teams have returned to play, both have been rolling, at least in terms of results. Both the Flyers and Islanders are 7-2 in the playoffs.