Despite being one of the NHL’s most fearsome juggernauts of the past several years, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been to only one Stanley Cup Final in the past 10 (2015). They’re hoping the tweaks made after last year’s debacle against the Columbus Blue Jackets can push them over the top. Meanwhile, the New York Islanders have taken steps forward in the second campaign under Barry Trotz, and while maintaining their stout defensive structure, they have amped up the scoring.
The Isles won 2 of 3 regular-season contests between the teams, outscoring the Lightning 11-4 in the aggregate. But all of that was months ago. Who will win the series this September?
What we learned in the second round: The Islanders are making their first trip to the conference finals since 1993, the same year the Lightning just wrapped up their first year as a franchise, finishing last in the Norris Division with 53 points. Yeah, it’s been a while. Barry Trotz’s group is known for its team-oriented defense (1.94 goals allowed per game these playoffs) and goaltending depth (Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss are both extremely capable), but the Islanders’ biggest strength is the ability to close out games. They’ve outscored opponents 22-7 in the third period. And while the defense gets much of the love (rightfully so), the offense coming alive is a huge storyline. The Islanders are the highest-scoring team remaining in the playoffs, averaging 3.38 goals per game; that’s a significant uptick from their 2.78 rate in the regular season, which ranked 22nd in the NHL.
The Lightning are the only team in the final four with a full week off, thanks to its dismantling of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in five games. The rest is much needed, considering Tampa Bay played nine overtimes through its first two rounds, totaling 134:29. The time off has given star Nikita Kucherov (injured in Game 5) time to recover, as he’s back skating with the team and should be good to go for the series. It won’t be quite enough for Steven Stamkos, who has already been ruled out for this series. Tampa Bay made several personnel changes this season to give the team more physicality and grit, which has paid off thus far. It feels fitting that to reach the Stanley Cup Final, they must once again face their playoff Achilles’ heel: a stingy, structured, defensive team (not unlike the Blue Jackets of 2019).
First line: New York’s top trio of Jordan Eberle, Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee are buzzing; though they didn’t contribute much offensively in the Game 7 win over the Flyers, coach Barry Trotz called it Barzal’s best game as a pro. In 16 games, they’ve scored only nine goals; but they’ve also been on the ice for only four goals against, outshooting opponents 141-88. They have an expected goal percentage of 63.91. Tampa Bay has been rolling out Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Kucherov, who are just as dominant and have slightly better numbers than the Isles’ top trio. Through 13 games, Tampa Bay’s top group has scored 16 goals, and they’ve been on the ice for six against, outshooting opponents 138-78. They have an expected goal percentage of 70.70. The icing: Point already has two overtime game winners on his 2020 playoff résumé. Advantage: Lightning.
Forward depth: New York’s biggest breakout of the postseason is their second line of Anthony Beauvillier with Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson, the two of whom are some of the longest tenured Islanders. The trio have been on the ice for 15 goals for, and just seven against, with an expected goals for percentage of 65.38. The Isles’ move to get Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline is paying off dividends; he’s been a huge boost to shore up center depth on the third line. However, there’s significant drop off with the rest of the bottom six — especially compared to the Lightning. Tampa Bay’s second line of Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson hasn’t been as productive offensively as we predicted. But the third line, featuring trade deadline acquisitions Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow has been dominant (77.78 goals for percentage) and the grit Julien BriseBois has injected to this team — including fourth-liner Patrick Maroon — has made Tampa Bay much more balanced. Advantage: Lightning.
Defense: While the Islanders don’t have any true stud No. 1 defensemen that compare to Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, the Isles’ strength lies in their total commitment to team defense. The Isles block 18.92 shots per 60 minutes, most of any remaining team in the tournament, and are the only team left allowing fewer than two goals per game. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech have reunited on the top pairing, and even trade deadline acquisition Andy Greene has added value on the third pairing, forcing out Johnny Boychuk ($6 million cap hit) as a healthy scratch. For the Lightning, Hedman has been an absolute force (26:00 average ice time per game) and has ushered in a career renaissance for partner Zach Bogosian. There are no weak links in the Lightning’s top six; Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak have been strong while the third pairing of Kevin Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev are finding their groove. Advantage: Tie.
Goaltending: Tampa Bay has the best goalie in this series in reigning Vezina Trophy winner — and 2020 nominee — Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Russian leads all goalies this summer with 10 wins (and just three losses), along with a .931 save percentage and 1.91 goal-against average. The Islanders, meanwhile, find strength in their tandem. Varlamov has started 14 games in the postseason, going 9-4 with a 2.00 GAA, a .921 save percentage and two shutouts; however, he was benched in Game 7 after allowing nine goals on 63 shots in Games 5 and 6 against the Flyers. Greiss stepped in for a 16-save shutout and has a .960 save percentage and 1.08 GAA in three appearances. Trotz’s strategy this postseason: “You try to ride the hot guy as long as you can, and then you go to the next guy.” Advantage: Tie.
Coaching: While Jon Cooper has led the Lightning to new heights, he’ll always carry a bit of extra baggage until he can finally lead this team to a championship. Barry Trotz, meanwhile, joined the Islanders in 2018 shortly after winning a Stanley Cup in Washington, which allowed him to shed the label of “good regular-season coach.” Trotz’s team has a clear identity, total buy in and, as Nelson said after the Game 7 win against the Flyers, he raised the level of the entire organization when he came in. Advantage: Islanders.
Special teams: Both teams have nearly identical numbers on the power play; New York is clicking at 17.0% in 16 games, Tampa Bay is at 17.1% at 13 games. And their penalty kills? Pretty darn similar, too. New York is 82.2%, Tampa Bay at 81.3%. Advantage: Tie.
Prediction: Lightning in seven. The Islanders have proved they’re not just a defensive juggernaut. They’re the only team to have emerged from the qualifying round, and they’ve done it thanks to their defense and productive offense. This just feels like the Lightning’s time, though. Tampa Bay boasts better top-end talent, a deeper forward group and — thanks to new additions this season — enough physicality to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.