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With the semifinals set it’s time to look ahead and today we’ll be starting that by previewing the Islanders-Lightning series. It will start on Sunday at 3:00pm ET and you can watch Game 1 on NBC.
(3) TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VERSUS (4) NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Jake Guentzel. David Pastrnak. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. The Islanders have faced some of the league’s biggest stars during the 2021 playoffs and moved past them. But can they do that against the Tampa Bay Lightning or is the core of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point a bridge too far? After all, the Islanders faced the Lightning in the 2020 playoffs too and lost in six games. So what makes this year different?
Honestly, not a ton, but there are some noteworthy differences here-and-there. The Islanders did acquire Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac during the regular season, which gives them some extra depth. Palmieri in particular came up big in the Islanders’ second round series against Boston with four goals and six points in six games.
The rest of the Islanders’ offensive core is largely the same, but their execution in the 2021 playoffs has been different. By the end of the 2020 playoffs, four players had a pace of 0.25 goals-per-game or better with the Islanders (at least six goals in 22 games). So far in 2021, there’s a staggering nine players on the team that are scoring at that 0.25 goals-per-game pace or better (at least three goals in 12 games). Thanks to that, the Islanders have averaged 3.58 goals-per-game in the postseason without having a true superstar forward on their team. You could maybe argue that Mathew Barzal is a superstar, but that’s moot because with three goals and nine points in 12 playoffs contests, he’s done fine, but hasn’t carried the team.
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Even still, the Islanders’ offense has been far better than it was in 2020 playoffs when they finished with a still strong 3.00 goals-per-game. More than that, the Islanders have been out scoring the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have averaged 3.45 goals-per-game in the 2021 postseason.
Think about that for a second. Kucherov has five goals and 18 points in 11 playoff games. Stamkos has five goals and 13 points in 11 contests. Point has eight goals and 12 points in 11 contests. Alex Killorn has six goals and 12 points in 11 games. The Lightning’s star forwards are giving terrific performances. And the Islanders have been the better team offensively through depth over stars.
It has its advantages. It’s harder to shutdown an entire team versus being able to focus on holding back a handful of players and it makes a team more immune to hot-and-cold streaks. Is Barzal having an off day? That’s fine, Anthony Beauvillier can step up. Beauvillier’s not performing? That’s fine, there’s Brock Nelson. Or Palmieri. Or Jordan Eberle. Or Josh Bailey. Or Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who actually is leading the Islanders’ scoring race with 13 points.
That depth goes to the Islanders’ goaltending too. Most teams ride a starter through the playoffs, but Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov have started in five and seven games respectively in the postseason. Both have done well overall, but head coach Barry Trotz has the luxury of changing up goaltenders whenever one falters. He can ride the hot hand or just keep both netminders fresh.
Though if you want to talk about goaltending, you have to mention Andrei Vasilevskiy. He had another amazing season with a 2.21 GAA and .925 save percentage in 42 starts and has been a huge part of the Lightning’s playoff success thus far with a 2.24 GAA and .934 save percentage in 11 starts. And that’s the thing about the Lightning: They’re a team with an enviable core of forwards. Their backbone is a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender.
The Lightning can both overwhelm teams offensively and squeak out victories in hard-fought defensive contests. In the 2020 Eastern Conference Final between Tampa Bay and the Islanders, three of the six games finished with a 2-1 score and Tampa Bay took two of those games, including the series-deciding Game 6. Far from a one note team, the Lightning can play on your terms and still beat you. That’s ultimately part of the reason why the Islanders fell just short of them last year. That’s part of the reason why the Lightning might be able to succeed against the Islanders again this year even after the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins failed.
Also, as long as we keep making comparisons to that 2020 series, we have to address one of the key changes that should help the Lightning this year: Both Kucherov and Stamkos are healthy. Last year when the Lightning best the Islanders, they were doing so without Stamkos, who only ended up logging 2:47 minutes of ice time in the entire 2020 playoffs. Now Tampa Bay has both of their stars healthy and that’s made an already strong team overwhelming. With their two superstars rolling, they beat Florida in six games and Carolina in five games.
After the Lightning beat Carolina, Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton quipped that, “We lost to a team $18 million over the cap.” While there’s a little more nuance here than that statement suggests, there is the fact that Nikita Kucherov missing the 2020-21 regular season due to injury, while unfortunate, did spare the Lightning from having to make any tough sacrifices to become cap complaint. Instead they could put Kucherov on the long-term injured reserve list for the entire regular season, which essentially negates his cap hit. The cap disappears for the playoffs, so at that point the Lightning could activate him, basically meaning that they’re icing a team in the playoffs that would be against the rules during the regular season.
The Lightning aren’t the first team to take advantage of this quirk in the rules and ultimately if there’s a problem here, that’s on the NHL, which never addressed this even during CBA renegotiations than the Lightning, which are operating within the letter of the league’s law. Plus, Kucherov was injured and that’s of course not something that anyone wanted. Still, it does help highlight just how good of a team the Islanders are facing. In fact, an argument could be made that the Lightning team they’ll be up against is one of the best squads on paper that we’ve seen in the salary cap era.
That doesn’t mean the Islanders can’t win. They’ve shown time and again that they’re more than the sum of their parts. But it is clear that they have a tremendous battle ahead of them.
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Players to Watch
Kyle Palmieri – Palmieri didn’t do much in the Islanders’ first round series against Pittsburgh, but he was a huge part of the Islanders’ victory over Boston in the second round. Palmieri is entering this series on a five-game point streak and he’s recorded four goals and six points over that span. If he can extend that hot streak into the semifinals then it will go a long way towards pushing the Islanders past Tampa Bay.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Pageau had an okay, but not great 14 goals and 28 points in 54 games during the regular season, but he’s been amazing in the playoffs. With three goals and 13 points in 12 games, he’s the Islanders’ scoring leader going into the semifinals. He’s showing no signs of slowing down either. He’s on a three-game point streak and has scored two goals and six points over his last five contests. It will be interesting to see if he can keep this up going forward. For what it’s worth, he was relatively quiet in the Islanders’ 2020 series against Tampa Bay, being limited to a goal and two points in six contests.
Nikita Kucherov – Ever since returning from injury at the start of the playoffs, he’s been phenomenal. With five goals and 18 points in 11 games, he is the playoff scoring leader going into the semifinals. One of the Islanders’ key tasks in this series will be containing him, but that’s a task the Panthers and Hurricanes have already failed at. In fact, that’s a task the Islanders failed at too last year. He had two goals and 10 points in six contests during the 2020 playoff series. So this is something they desperately need to improve on this time around.
Ondrej Palat – The Lightning as a whole have been clicking, but one forward who has struggled is Palat. He has just two goals and five points in 11 playoff games after scoring 15 goals and 46 points in 55 contests in the regular season. So far the Lightning haven’t needed him at his best, but that doesn’t mean they won’t need him going forward. Palat was an important part of the Lightning’s 2020 championship run, scoring 11 goals and 18 points in 25 playoff games.
Additional Series Notes
This series will feature two veteran head coaches who have plenty of playoff experience. Cooper is in his ninth season as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s bench boss and his team made it to the Stanley Cup in 2015 and won the championship in 2020. He has 62 career playoff wins, which is good for 20th place on the all-time list.
Islanders head coach Barry Trotz has 80 career postseason wins, which puts him in 12th place. If the Islanders win at least two games in this series, then he’ll tie Toe Blake for 11th place on the all-time list. Like Cooper, Trotz has a championship under his belt, having won it all with Washington in 2018.
The Islanders have been pretty successful on the power play in the playoffs, converting on 28.1% of their opportunities, but that’s nothing compared to the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have an unreal 41.7% success rate on the power play in the 2021 playoffs. Needless to say, the Islanders will want to stay out of the sin bin, especially given that they’ve only killed 61.5% of their postseason penalties.
Tampa Bay has fared better on the penalty kill in the 2021 playoffs, killing 77.8% of theirs so far. At least in terms of special teams, the Lightning would seem to have the clear edge going into this series.
Getting out ahead is of course always preferable, but the Lightning can’t just relax once they have a lead. The Islanders have a respectable 2-3 record in playoff games where they trailed after 40 minutes this year. No other semifinals team has managed multiple comebacks going into the third period. Though it’s worth noting that the Lightning have only trailed through 40 minutes once in the 2021 playoffs, so there’s not much data there to go off. For what it’s worth, Tampa Bay did lose that contest.
The Islanders have two question marks going into the semifinals in Michael Dal Colle (undisclosed) and Oliver Wahlstrom (lower body). Both are listed as being day-to-day, but keep in mind that this is the playoffs so most injuries are termed as being day-to-day even if they’re not short-term. Dal Colle last played on May 4th and Wahlstrom played on May 24th. It’s not clear if either will be available for Game 1 of the semifinals or, for that matter, if either will return during the series in general.
The Islanders are also missing Anders Lee, but there’s no mystery there. After undergoing knee surgery, he’s been ruled out for the 2021 playoffs.
By contrast the Tampa Bay Lightning are projected to go into this series with all hands on deck. Technically they do have Anders Nilsson and Marian Gaborik on the sidelines, but the Lightning acquired the two contracts from the Ottawa Senators back in December 2020 with the knowledge that they could store them on the long-term injured reserve list. Neither player was expected to play at all for Tampa Bay when they were acquired.