The theme of this series seems to be “unfinished business”. The New York Islanders played the Lightning close in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, but weren’t able to beat the Bolts. So now they return hoping to finish what they couldn’t last year.
Both teams are returning fairly similar line-ups from the ECF. Seriously, we could have posted last year’s preview and not have to change too much. The Islanders lost Anders Lee and Devon Toews while the Lightning are without Kevin Shattenkirk and Cedric Paquette. Other than that, things are pretty much the same.
New York did bolster their third line at the trade deadline picking up Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac giving them something they missed last year - forward depth. While they might not match the Lightning’s offense on paper, they do have three lines that can score and will force Coach Cooper to match lines.
The biggest advantage seems to be on special teams where the Lightning are clicking along at an absurd 41.7%, averaging more than one power play goal per game. With the Islanders penalty kill at a paltry 61.5% it seems to be a recipe for disaster if you’re an Isles fans. However, the law of averages would seem to indicate that both numbers should regress to the mean a bit. Also, the Bolts might have fewer opportunities as New York is one of the least penalized teams in the postseason.
Tampa Bay will have to be careful when shorthanded (something they’ve been 36 times so far in 11 games) as the Islanders are a respectable 28.1% on the power play. Most of the Lightning’s troubles have come when they’ve taken too many penalties and allowed their opponents back into the game.
Despite the Lightning having some more recognizable names on offense, the Islanders have scored at a higher rate so far in the postseason, averaging 3.58 goals per game. That’s second in the league, just slightly above the Lightning’s 3.45. The Bolts have been better at keeping the puck out of the net with a 2.36 goals against average. The Islanders are middle of the pack at 2.75.
Some of New York’s offensive success can be directed to their opponents so far. The Penguins goaltenders didn’t have a great series in the first round while Tuukka Rask was playing with a torn labrum in his hip. That seems less than ideal. Putting up similar numbers against Andrei Vasilevskiy is going to be another story.
The Bolts are also going to throw a lot more offense at New York than they’ve seen so far. Pittsburgh was beat up and Boston....well Boston is Boston. Shut down the top line and take your chances with the other three. The Lightning are different. Shut down the Brayden Point line (good luck) and you still have to deal with Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos or the Yanni Gourde trio. Heck, even the fourth line showed some offensive skill in the last game against Carolina.
Most of the models and predictions have the Lightning moving on to the Stanley Cup. In a perfect world, that’s a good sign. In the playoffs, it can be a cause for concern. The Islanders have been the underdogs in their last five playoff series and have won four of them. The only one they’ve lost - last season’s ECF. Can they avenge that loss this season?
Leo Komarov - Mathew Barzal - Jordan Eberle
Anthony Beauvillier - Brock Nelson - Josh Bailey
Kyle Palmieri - Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Travis Zajac
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck
Of the three teams the Lightning have or are going to face this postseason, the Islanders have the least threatening forward corps on paper. Still, there is a lot of talent and discipline on the top three lines. Barzal is the key to the offense. If he’s able to find some open space and get going, his speed could wreck havoc on the Lightning defense.
So far that trio hasn’t been great together, scoring just three goals at 5v5 while posting just a 45.06 CF%. In order to keep pace with Bolts, they’re going to need to be better than that. So far the second and third lines have carried them, with Kyle Palmieri providing an unexpected burst of offense with 6 even-strength goals. He’s getting prime chances with 4.48 high danger chances per 60 minutes.
Expect the Islanders to try and counter-attack and catch the Lightning defense pinching in. They have enough speed up front to give Tampa Bay’s defense some issues especially with Victor Hedman still not at 100%. In the offensive zone they will try and crash the net and score goals from in close. The Bolts defense will be tasked with keeping Andrei Vasilevskiy’s crease clear.
Adam Pelech - Ryan Purlock
Nick Leddy - Scott Mayfield
Andy Green - Noah Dobson
Pelech and Purlock are most likely to get tasked with shutting down the Brayden Point line so it will fall on the rest of the defense to handle the Lightning’s second and third lines. The Leddy/Mayfield combo played well against Boston and will need to continue that this series. They’ve posted a ridiculous 63.64% (Leddy) and 73.68% (Mayfield) Goals For percentage during the first two rounds as they’ve both been on the ice for 14 Islanders goals at 5v5. That’s pretty darn good.
After facing five different goaltenders in their first two series, the Bolts are going to have to deal with a true number one netminder in Semyon Varlamov. Last round there was a little question about who would take on the Boston Bruins with rookie Ilya Sorokin getting the nod in Game One. The Islanders lost and Varlamov took over in Game Two. He’s been in net ever since.
He’s posted solid numbers in his seven postseason games overall with a .925 SV% and 2.62 GA/G. He’s saved 1.70 goals above average in the 7 games he’s appeared in while posting a .831 High Danger Save percentage. All perfectly good numbers. The only problem is, for the Islanders to win, he’s going to have to be above average. Last season he was able to keep the Islanders in the series, holding them to two goals or less in three of the five games he started against them (two of those were losses).
With all of the press the Lightning’s power play has gotten recently, he’s going to be sharp when they’re down a skater. Something that hasn’t happened so far this season as he’s posted just a .778 SV% on the penalty kill. That most likely coincides with the team’s dismal 61.5% success rate killing penalties (only Florida and St. Louis posted a lower rate). The good news is that they are only averaging 2.17 times shorthanded per game, the third lowest rate in the playoffs.
Still, Varlamov is going to busy. The team in front of him has allowed 37.7 shots per game against the Penguins and Bruins. Expect the Lightning to continue to generate a similar amount of offense. He’s going to have to be sharp controlling his rebounds, the Lightning generated 16 rebound chances against him last season in their series.