Lightning vs. Islanders – Eastern Conference Finals preview

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 01: Anthony Beauvillier #18 of the New York Islanders skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on November 01, 2019 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Lightning 5-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 01: Anthony Beauvillier #18 of the New York Islanders skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on November 01, 2019 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Lightning 5-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The time has arrived. The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders will square off for the opportunity to play either the Dallas Stars or Vegas Golden Knights for Lord Stanley’s Cup. This series – understandably – gives many Lightning fans reason to pause. In fact, this might be the toughest match-up the Bolts could have drawn for this series.

For starters, the Islanders are 7-2 in the bubble when they score first. It wasn’t until game five of their series against the Flyers did they lose when holding a lead at any point during bubble play. Quite simply – they are a shut down defensive team that can score in bunches.

In their three games against one another in the regular season – which, to be fair, seems like five years ago – the Lightning were just 1-2 having been outscored 11-6 in the three games and 10-3 in the two Islanders victories. The Islanders were the only team to put that kind of beating on the Lightning all year long. On the flip side, the two Isles wins came in November and December while the Bolts were still struggling a little and before they went on their post-Christmas break run.

A couple of other notable talking points are the unavailability of Steven Stamkos (as you can read here – I won’t dive into it too much in this preview) and the rematch with Barry Trotz in a conference finals.

It was just two short years ago that the Lightning lost in the conference finals to a Trotz-led Washington Capitals team after being up 3-2 in the series. The Caps rattled off two straight shutout victories before going on to win the Stanley Cup against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The two-time Jack Adams award winner out coached Jon Cooper down the stretch in that series and has the postseason experience that makes him such a feared opponent. But how much will on ice experience play into things?

This is Tampa Bay’s fourth conference finals in the last six years while the Islanders haven’t played in the conference finals since 1993. The core of this particular Lightning team – Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Alex Killorn, Ryan McDonagh – not only have the ECF experience, but many have Stanley Cup Finals experience. This is a hungry, angry group that had their butts handed to them after one of the most impressive regular seasons in NHL history and are now on, what appears to be, a revenge tour.

That tour would fittingly have to include Trotz.

Vaailevskiy has been an incredibly impressive player, which comes as no surprise. Not only is he hoisting a .931 save percentage, but he is the only goalie for any team in the playoffs to play every minute of every game for his respective team. It seems that the deeper we get into these playoffs, the more dialed in Vasy appears to be and the better he gets.

What this series will really boil down to for the Bolts is the ability for a secondary guy to step up and be a major contributor. Against the Boston Bruins, that guy was Ondrej Palat. We expect big things from Vasy, Hedman, Brayden Point, and Kuch. That’s why they’re here and are compensated the way they are. Those are some of the best players in the world and are relied upon to stand tall in spotlight games. But with the continued absence of Stammer, the Bolts have seen players rise to the occasion and lift each other in the process.

The Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow line was the driving force in both series thus far. Imagine what the Lightning would look like if it wasn’t for that energy line stealing momentum away from the opponent on any given shift. Then we’ve seen Zach Bogosian play out of his mind, making him an incredible pairing partner to the already elite Hedman. It’s the little things like this that have led to Tampa Bay’s postseason success this year.

I firmly believe that if the Lightning get through this series, neither the Stars nor the Golden Knights pose as big of a threat to the Bolts’ chances at hoisting the Stanley Cup as the Islanders do. It’s all about match-ups and for the Bolts, this match-up is certainly going to test their abilities to win in various ways. Unlike the high speed, high scoring team we’ve seen in recent years, the Lightning have to play a disciplined, calculated style of hockey.

The Isles pose so many defensive issues for their opponents that if the Lightning are forced to play from behind, it will be far more difficult than against the Blue Jackets or Bruins. Columbus certainly presented issues with their ability to clog the middle of the offensive zone and force Tampa Bay to score sloppy goals on second chances. The Islanders? With Semyon Varlamov? They don’t allow many rebounds or second chances.

In the end, I do believe the Lightning come away with this series in a tough, brutal battle. Experience will win out and the Lightning will continue their revenge tour by exorcising the ghosts of 2018.

Series Prediction: Lightning in 6