After two hard fought, but rather quick rounds (and a handful of round robin games) the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves back in the Eastern Conference Final for the fourth time in six years. After avenging last year’s sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, and then beating their quasi-rival Boston Bruins in the second round, they now face a somewhat surprising opponent - the New York Islanders.
There isn’t much of a history with the Islanders as the two teams have played in separate divisions since 1998 and have only met twice in the playoffs (2004 and 2016) and both series ended with the Lightning winning in five games. In most playoff previews the Islanders weren’t picked to advance this far. Heck, in a normal year they wouldn’t have even made the playoffs having finished sixth in the Metro division.
Yet here they are. They took down the Florida Panthers in the Qualifying Round in four games. The Washington Capitals were next and were eliminated in five games. It looked like the Philadelphia Flyers would follow suit as the Islanders went up 3-1 in their most recent series. The Flyers battled back to force a Game 7, but the Islanders prevailed, quite convincingly, to earn the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Now, they face the Lightning and just about everyone is picking them to lose. That should give everyone a moment’s pause. Rarely is there a near unanimous pick this late in the post-season, and when there is, it usually ends up being a lot closer than predicted. The Islanders definitely win the “nobody believe in us” category in this match-up.
It’s easy to see why. Even with Steven Stamkos ruled out for the series, and Coach Cooper made it clear on Sunday that he’s not expecting his captain’s services over the next seven games the Lightning are far ahead in name recognition with Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy available for play. However, conference trophies aren’t handed to the team with the highest Q Score (as much as NBC tries to make it so).
The Islanders aren’t going to be an easy team to beat. Remember how frustrating it was to play against the Blue Jackets defense? Expect more of that, except that the Isles have some players who can put the puck in the net. Also, unlike Columbus, New York isn’t relying on their goaltenders to bail them out.
Semyon Varlamov, who is expected to start all the games since there are no back-to-backs, has been good. In 14 games he’s posted a .921 SV% and a 2.00 GAA. Digging down a little deeper, it looks like Varlamov is simply making the saves he’s supposed to. At 5v5 his goals saved above average is only 0.16 which ranks 16th among goalies who have played in the bubble. By comparison, Joonas Korpisalo was at 0.47 in the nine games he appeared in.
The defense in front of him has done a tremendous job of limiting the shots coming at him. His 25.11 Shots Against/60 is second lowest among goaltenders who played more than three games. Of the usual starting goalies, only Robin Lehner faced fewer shots on a per 60 basis (22.59).
The Islanders are second (behind the Vegas Golden Knights) in shots allowed per 60 at just 25.71. It’s kind of interesting that in total Corsi allowed per 60 they are at 58.25 which is middle of the road among the playoffs teams (14th). That indicates they are doing a great job of blocking shots or pushing them wide of the net. The result of that strategy along with their pretty good goaltending is a 1.56 goals against average, third in playoffs (the Lightning are second at 1.51).
It will be interesting to see who Coach Cooper decides to match the Anthony Cirelli line against. The Islanders have spread their offense over their top two lines. The top line of Anders Lee (4 even strength goals), Matthew Barzal (4 ESG), and Jordan Eberle (2 ESG) have been good and consistent. Their second line of Anthony Beauvillier (6 ESG), Brock Nelson (6 ESG), and Josh Bailey (2 ESG) may have been even better. All six of those players are on the fun/good side of Charting Hockey’s xG rates:
So there is a good chance that the top two lines of both teams will be battling it out and nullifying each other. That’s a positive for the Lightning as their depth is flat out better than the Islanders. Once again, the Yanni Gourde line could be the difference maker. If they can win their match-ups the Lightning should have the edge in the series.
Barry Trotz does a pretty good job of splitting the playing time among his defenders, which makes sense when there isn’t one dominant player among them. They might not be the most recognized names in the game, but, much like Varlamov, they just kind of get the job done. The veteran Andy Greene has the lowest amount of ice time at 17:48 per game while the other five (Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Nick Leddy, Devon Toews, and Scott Mayfield) are all within roughly 30 seconds of each other in playing time (22:26 for Pelech and 19:57 for Mayfield).
It’s going to be a grind for the Lightning once again. There likely isn’t going to be much space or time available for their skilled forwards to work their usual magic, so look for them to resort to dirty goals. Once again, the key to their offense will be to get bodies in front of the goaltenders and make sure their shots get through from the points. If they can work the shots through the tangle of bodies in front of the net and get to the rebounds, they’ll have a chance to earn those ugly goals.
Don’t expect either team to have much of an advantage on special teams. In the bubble the Lightning are converting at a 17.1% (yes that includes the round robin games) while the Islanders are at 17.0%. The Lightning have killed off 81.3% of their penalties while the Islanders were successful 82.2%.
New York is averaging 2.81 penalties taken per game, which is third fewest in the playoffs. Meanwhile they are eighth in power play opportunities per game at 3.69. So, can we expect the Lightning to be on the wrong side of the number of penalties called in this series - most likely. So, let’s take a moment right now and complain about the officiating...
Ok, got it out of our systems? Good. Penalties are important, but this series is going to be won at even strength. That’s where the Lightning need to be better. Even if the Islanders get 80% of the calls, if Tampa Bay beats them at 5v5, then the Lightning will be making their third trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
My prediction: Lightning win in six games.
Eastern Conference Final Schedule:
Tampa Bay is the “home team” in Games One, Two, Five, and Seven
Game One: Monday, September 7th 8:00 pm NBCSN
Game Two: Wednesday, September 9th 8:00 pm NBCSN
Game Three: Friday, September 11th 8:00 pm USA
Game Four: Sunday, September 13th 3:00 pm NBC
Game Five: Tuesday, September 15th 8:00 pm NBCSN
Game Six: Thursday, September 17th 8:00 pm NBCSN
Game Seven: Saturday. September 19th 7:30 pm NBC