For the second season in a row, the Islanders and Lightning meet in Round 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Will the Stanley Cup winner come out of this best-of-seven series for the second year in a row, too?
Most people probably expected the Lightning back here. They aren’t surprising anyone. Tampa Bay finished third in a competitive Central Division, but it’s not as though they sagged and fell there. The Lightning had the eighth-most points in the league and were only five off Carolina’s division-leading pace.
They did it all without MVP Nikita Kucherov, sidelined for the regular season to injury. They were also without Steven Stamkos for the last month of the season and Victor Hedman was playing hurt down the stretch.
No matter. Tampa Bay was able to be a player at the trade deadline, adding David Savard — the top defenceman available — who now anchors their third pair. When the playoffs rolled around, Kucherov and Stamkos returned and suddenly the Lightning looked more dangerous than ever.
In Round 1, they met upstart Florida who challenged the Lightning with a quick-pace, high-event series that was must-see TV. The Lightning can play you any which way, though, and countered everything Florida threw at them. Andrei Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the playoffs, recovered, and then was the difference as the Panthers had to go three goalies deep into their roster. Tampa won in six games.
Then against Carolina, they met another high-event team that appeared primed to make a post-season breakthrough. Again Tampa’s biggest names led the way and Vasilevskiy continued his dominance, stopping 94 per cent of the shots Carolina threw at him. Tampa actually lost the shot battle in the series but outscored Carolina 14-9 and took the series in a surprisingly fast five games.
These two will coach against each other with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final at stake for the third time in four seasons. They split the first two series. ( via Lightning last seaon) pic.twitter.com/Ww5GmqtbXM
— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) June 10, 2021
The Islanders — well, maybe we should have expected them back here. They definitely shouldn’t be surprising us anymore. But, boy, was there a lot of reason to be pessimistic about them heading into Round 1.
From the trade deadline to the end of the regular season, New York was 5-6-3 with the second-lowest points percentage of any playoff team down the stretch. They lost their last five regular season games and none of their deadline pickups had started to click — Kyle Palmieri had just two goals in 17 games.
The Islanders’ first-round opponent was Pittsburgh, who had been one of the NHL’s best teams since mid-February and they were getting a lot of production out of their trade deadline acquisition Jeff Carter. Bad matchup and the wrong time, right?
Not so much. Right away it began to turn in New York’s favour. Palmieri ended his cold stretch immediately, scoring two goals including the OT winner in Game 1. The Islanders dropped Games 2 and 3 but then reeled off three wins in a row to take down the Penguins for the second time in three seasons.
In Round 2 they drew Boston, two teams strong on the forecheck and with a lot of playoff experience. The Islanders fell behind in this series, too — trialing 1-0 and then 2-1 — but just as they did against Pittsburgh, New York won the last three games in a row as the Bruins got more bruised and the Islanders’ offence heated up. Despite being known for their defence, New York scored 15 goals in the last three games of that series.
Palmieri has been as advertised and leads the team in goals. Travis Zajac scored a big goal in Game 6. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, last year’s trade pickup, tied Mathew Barzal and Palmieri for the team lead in scoring during Round 2. No one player stood out above the others. The Islanders are a team defined by its culture, structure, the buy in to it, and getting just the right players to fit in.
Credit to coach Barry Trotz for making it all work, and to GM Lou Lamoriello for targeting the right players — even if it didn’t always look shrewd from the outside in the moment.
“He understands building a roster,” Trotz said of his GM. “There’ll be Player A and Player B and the values that a lot of people might put on a certain player because it’s the sexy thing to do — he understands the intrinsic value of a player in tough games, in the locker room, and as a teammate and as a pro and all the stuff you really don’t put a lot of numbers to. Everything he does is very thorough and has substance to it.”
Two deserving teams with very different reputations. The defending champion Lightning will surely provide New York with its stiffest test yet, but the Islanders will counter as the biggest challenge the Lightning have faced in these playoffs because they are the most polished, experienced and defensive team they’ve faced so far.
Who you got?
Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
Tampa Bay: 46.31 CF% (11th), 54.29 GF% (5th), .943 SV% (3rd), 7.51 SH% (5th)
NY Islanders: 42.20 CF% (15th), 57.69 GF% (1st), .943 SV% (3rd), 9.84 SH% (1st)
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Tampa Bay: 41.7 PP% (1st), 77.8 PK% (8th), 3.45 GF/G (3rd), 2.36 GA/G (5th)
NY Islanders: 28.1 PP% (4th), 61.5 PK% (14th), 3.58 GF/G (2nd), 2.75 GA/G (7th)
Tampa Bay: Simply put, everything. Tampa Bay has it all. They had a deep defence that would have been just fine to move forward with, then added Savard at the deadline anyway. Kucherov returned for the playoffs and now has a healthy lead on all players in post-season scoring — he’s probably the Conn Smythe favourite right now. They run four lines deep — Pat Maroon, Tyler Johnson and Ross Colton make up a pretty dangerous fourth line that has struck with timely offence. The key will be making sure the second line of Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn get enough chances to counter the inevitable tough defence New York will throw at them.
We just can’t underestimate the strength that Vasilevskiy has been in these playoffs and he’s getting stronger as they go on. He wasn’t great out of the gate against Florida, but shut them out to end the series and then was nearly unbeatable against Carolina. The Lightning have been out shot in both of their series so far, but Vasilevskiy has shut it down. We already knew he was special and probably the best goalie in the world, but the run he’s on now will start getting people talking about where we should begin considering the 26-year-old on an all-time scale.
Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour had some words for Vasilevskiy in the handshake line:
“I’ve been around a long time,” Brind’Amour relayed to the media. “That’s kind of what I said. I’ve seen a lot of goalies that were good, but he’s as good as anyone that I’ve ever seen. I go back to Dominik Hasek and how he affects the team the way they can play. He makes it look easy. Dominik Hasek made it look hard. We had a lot of great looks tonight, and they looked like nothing because he was in the right place or whatever. That’s what I told him.”
New York Islanders: Defence, defence, defence. Yes, the Islanders average allowing the third-most 5-on-5 shots against per 60 minutes in these playoffs, but when you strip out perimeter chances they look like a much better defensive team. The Islanders are OK with teams getting shots from the outside — they strive to protect the middle of the ice and front of the net and it’s where they excel.
This helps their goalies thrive and is why the Islanders have the best team save percentage of anyone still standing.
Depth is also a primary strength for the Islanders — everywhere in the lineup. Their forward line usage gets largely spread out and no one unit is leaned on too heavily. Their defence is stacked from top to bottom as well, though usage there gets skewed a little more to the top four.
Best of all is that the Islanders defend so well and do it legally. No team took fewer penalties than the Islanders in the regular season and that has carried over into the playoffs, frustrating Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy who labelled them the New York Saints. This is part of what makes them so hard to play against.
So many of the best teams get a leg up on the competition because of how their power plays can dominate and swing games, but the Islanders don’t open that door very often. This will be key in the Lightning series because no one has a more deadly power play than Tampa Bay. Keeping that unit off the ice by staying disciplined is vital to New York’s success in this series.
Don’t underestimate the power of the Coliseum crowd either. This is the last playoff run the team will have in its home before the new facility opens and the atmosphere has been off the charts.
Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos
When the Lightning beat the Islanders in six games last September, they did it without Stamkos, who only played 2:47 in the 2020 playoffs (all in the Cup final). Kucherov and Brayden Point were big producers and, combined with Hedman, the three of them combined for nearly half of Tampa’s goals in the series.
Having Stamkos back now on the second line will add another layer that’ll challenge the Islanders. Kucherov’s line will get the primary focus and with Stamkos producing on line two (points in eight of 11 games so far), it will push New York’s defensive depth, but also spread out Tampa’s offence and likely put more pressure on New York to score.
Honourable mention in the X-Factor category goes to Yanni Gourde. The third line centre was shut out completely from the score sheet in Round 2, but if he and his line get going again, now New York is looking at a three-deep attack and then a difficult fourth line that’s been fairly productive to boot.
New York Islanders: Brock Nelson
The Killer B’s line is going to be crucial. As good as New York’s defence is, Tampa Bay will find ways to score. They hung an eight on New York in Game 1 last season and scored 20 times in the six-game series. The Islanders scored more than two goals just once in that series.
Where the Islanders could lose this series again is if they don’t get enough offence. Palmieri was brought in at the deadline for that reason and he’ll be someone they turn to for scoring now as well. But the true leaders here are Nelson, Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier, whose line was so good against Boston. They cannot run cold now or the uphill climb gets that much steeper.