Islanders and Lightning.
It’s a series 265 days in the making. That’s how long it has been since these two teams met in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals and when Tampa Bay won the series in six games. It’s also how long it has been since they’ve faced each other in any kind of game.
And here’s the plot twist: In reality, it’s likely this would have been the Eastern Conference final pairing if things had been per usual this year. So while this round has a fancy new title for 2021 — Stanley Cup semifinal — it’s just one more nudge that things are getting back to normal.
“It’s a great opportunity for us seeing them again in the semifinals,” said Anthony Beauvillier after his Islanders sent the Bruins golfing. “I think we’re taking a lot of pride in what we do, and to get back to the spot that we were last year with some unfinished business, it’s a great opportunity for us. Everyone is excited in the room and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Speaking of normal, both arenas should be rocking with fans back in the seats, especially the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Old Barn is closing its hockey doors when the Islanders’ run ends, and the team is certainly sending it out in style. It has been 38 years since the home team gave Lord Stanley’s Cup a twirl around the ice — 37 since it was in a Cup Final — and this club will be itching to do it one more time. On the flip side, the defending champion Lightning are aiming for a repeat and, this time, to give the fans a chance to see it in person.
But before they can even think about fulfilling their Stanley Cup dreams, they have to face each other.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders: Schedule, odds, breakdown, prediction
Stanley Cup semifinal schedule
(* If necessary)
The teams did not play against each other in 2021 because of COVID-19 restrictions. Here’s a quick look at some stats against the seven other teams in their respective divisions (per NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick):
(Odds by FanDuel)
So here’s the funny thing about all those season stats for the Lightning: Throw them out the window. They look all shiny, but they were missing one key element — Nikita Kucherov. The Russian missed the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery and has hit the ice running in the postseason. In 11 games, he has racked up 18 points (five goals, 13 assists), with 13 of those on the power play, and averaged an eye-popping 1.64 points per game.
If you’re Barry Trotz and the Islanders, you’re probably thinking, “Let’s shut down Kucherov and we’ll have a solid chance,” right? Well, if you just focused on him, then you’d leave Steven Stamkos (13 points), Alex Killorn (12) Brayden Point (12) and defenseman Victor Hedman (11) open — and those are just the players with double-digit points. That’s the thing about the Lightning; they have a balanced offense across all four lines and their blue-liners chip in, too.
The Islanders have a similar setup with their forward group, especially as of late. More known for shutting down the other team’s high-octane offense, the guys from Long Island are led by . . . a guy from Long Island. Deadline pickup Kyle Palmieri has reignited the offense with a team-leading seven goals. But he’s not the only one putting the puck in the net; the team boasted a 3.67 GF/GP against the Bruins in the second round. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (13 points), longtime Islander Josh Bailey (11) and Anthony Beauvillier (11) have double-digit points in the playoffs.
One guy the Islanders will need to keep pace to have any success the rest of the way is Mat Barzal. The 2018 Calder Trophy winner notched just three points in the six games against the Penguins, but he has turned it up as of late. In six games against Boston, he notched six points, including the game-winner in Game 4. Last season in the Eastern Conference finals, he contributed four assists in six games. The Islanders’ points leader in 2021 will be critical to this squad getting past the defending champion.
Barry Trotz knows defense. Yeah, he knows how to squeeze every last bit of offensive juice from his players, but the man knows defense. His team had the second-lowest GA/GP in the regular season at just 2.23, and since Trotz shipped up north from Washington after winning the 2018 Stanley Cup, the Long Island team has boasted a league-best 2.46 GA/GP.
In the first round, Trotz sent the East Division’s best team, the Penguins, into a downward offensive spiral. A crew that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went from 3.45 GF/GP in the regular season to 2.67. In the second round, the Bruins, who were at 2.93 for the 2021 season and 3.20 GF/GP for Round 1 against the Capitals, dropped to 2.83.
Tampa Bay sported a 3.21 GF/GP in the regular season, which isn’t too shabby, but again, it didn’t have Kucherov. The Islanders have one of the worst Corsi For percentages at 5v5 (42.20) — it’s actually 15th out of 16 playoff teams — which means they don’t have the puck a whole lot and they allow a whole lot of shots against. But they do have the best SCSV% (percentage of scoring chance shots against that were not goals, per Natural Stat Trick) at 92.23 and the third-best High-Danger save percentage (87.80).
Jon Cooper’s Lightning are also solid on defense and, in fact, have posted a better GA/GP than the Islanders in the postseason (2.36 compared to 2.75). It surely doesn’t hurt to have the 2020 Norris Trophy winner — and a 2021 Norris Trophy finalist — in the corps in Victor Hedman. Then there’s Mikhail Sergachev, David Savard, Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh. All but Savard were on the 2020 Cup team, so this crew knows what it takes to get to the final round.
This series may come down to the performances between the pipes. Andrei Vasilevskiy is up again for the Vezina, and for good reason. He led the league with 31 wins — the Lightning won 36 total — and had a shiny .925 save percentage. That was the regular season; as the importance of each game has risen, so has his level of play.
“I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen a lot of goalies that are good, but he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said after his team was eliminated by the Lightning. “And how he affects the team and how they can play. That’s kind of what I told him. And it’s true.”
In the playoffs, he’s boasting a .934 save percentage, just .001 behind leader Carey Price, and has two shutouts, including one in the series clincher against Carolina. In 11 starts, he has a 3.57 Goals Saved Above Average and .921 High-Danger Save percentage at 5v5 (per Natural Stat Trick), both of which are the best among the remaining goalies.
Trotz has called on both his netminders — Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin — in the postseason. Varlamov has started seven games while the rookie Sorokin has gotten the tap five times. Both are displaying sparkling save percentages — Sorokin is at .934 and Varlamov is at .925 — but the latter has been getting the gigs lately. After Sorokin faltered in Game 1 against the Bruins — and despite winning three straight vs. the Pens — Varlamov has been the one in net.
There’s really not too much to say here other than Tampa Bay’s power-play is connecting at 41.7 percent effectiveness. The Islanders’ penalty kill is 61.5 percent effective. Translation: You CANNOT take penalties if you’re the Islanders. The Islanders’ power play, by the way, is working at a respectable 28.1 percent and the Lightning’s penalty kill percentage is 77.8. But, again, you CANNOT take penalties if you’re the Islanders.
Key players to watch
Brayden Point (TBL): The Calgary, Alta., native has been red-hot as of late with five points in the last three games, including the series winner in Game 5 against the Hurricanes. In 11 games this postseason, he has notched eight goals and 12 points and is well on his way to besting the 14 times he hit the back of the net in 23 contests in 2020 bubble hockey. He’s boasting a 6.83 Expected Goals For at 5v5, which is fourth-best on the club, and has won 57.26 percent of his faceoffs taken, per Natural Stat Trick. Last postseason, he played in just four of the six games against the Islanders and still skated away with seven points.
Kyle Palmieri (NYI): Acquired via trade around the deadline along with fellow longtime Devil Travis Zajac, Palmieri has made himself quite at home on Long Island, which shouldn’t be a shocker since the Smithtown, N.Y., native grew up about 30 miles from Nassau Coliseum. After potting just four points in 17 regular-season games, he has turned it up in the playoffs with seven goals and two assists in 12 games. According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s seventh in the league with an individual xG of 2.65. The 30-year-old forward, who is growing back his magnificent beard for the playoffs, is also riding a five-game point-scoring streak.
Lightning vs. Islanders playoff history
It should also be noted that the two times these teams have met in the postseason (regardless of round) and the Lightning have won, they went to win the Cup.
Last five playoff appearances
Tampa Bay Lightning
New York Islanders
Lightning vs. Islanders prediction
It’s hard not to think the Islanders will pull this one out — and they just may because, as we’ve learned, you never bet against the mastermind, Barry Trotz — but the Lightning are, soup to nuts, the more stacked team. This club has been to the promised land. It knows what it takes and, when all is said and done, it should have a chance at going back-to-back.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
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