The Islanders will be the underdogs once again as they take on the reigning champions.
The New York Islanders will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final for the second consecutive season.
Finishing the regular season in fourth place in the East Division, the Islanders have been the underdogs in each of their playoff series. This one will be no different.
So many different players on the team have stepped up massively on different occasions and the Islanders have done a great job of exploiting the weaknesses and mistakes of their opponents. That’s how they’ve gotten this far.
This will be their toughest task yet. This will mark the first round of the playoffs in which teams will be facing opponents that they did not play during the regular season, making things even more difficult.
The Lightning are the reigning Stanley Cup champions and are arguably the best team in hockey. It’s difficult to imagine the Islanders making it out of this series, but they could be up to it.
Let’s take a look at this formidable Lightning team and what the Islanders can and must do in order to emerge victorious.
Tampa Bay’s best player and one of the best players in the NHL, Nikita Kucherov hasn’t skipped a beat after missing the entire regular season due to injury.
He has a whopping 18 points in 11 games and will look to terrorize the Islanders for the second-straight year. The Islanders were unable to stop Kucherov during the 2020 ECF, which is cause for concern a year later.
Brayden Point is another player the Islanders need to watch out for. He has eight goals and is good against the forecheck and hard to defend, two of the Islanders’ greatest strengths.
A key reason why it’s hard to believe the Islanders will win this series is Steven Stamkos. Tampa Bay beat New York in six last year and went on to win the cup without their captain and second-best player. That won’t be the case this time around.
We’ve already seen Stamkos’ impact on this team and on the second line, in particular. Last season, due to Stamkos’ absence, the Lightning’s second line was arguably the team’s worst. And they STILL went on to win it all.
This season, that line might be as good as Tampa’s top line. Stamkos is playing like Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli is proving to be incredibly valuable as a two-way forward, and Alex Killorn has never looked better.
Kucherov, Point, and Stamkos are three stars that make the Lightning’s top-six so dangerous.
Defensively, Ryan McDonagh and Erik Černák have been unbelievable. They’ve been so good that they’ve emerged as the team’s top defensive pairing. The Lightning shine at both ends when these two are on the ice.
Before we talk about the rest of Tampa’s team, we need to talk about their power play.
The Lightning are especially scary because of their unique versatility that no other team exhibits and the fact that they can win playing any style of hockey.
They’re taking on two exceptionally high-scoring teams in the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes? They’ll adapt. They’re facing elite defensive teams that don’t concede many goals? They’ll bring the heat.
The Lightning are good at everything, literally everything, but the power play is the reason they’re so elite at this point in time. They’re the best power play team in the playoffs and convert on the man-advantage more often than not.
13 of Kucherov’s 18 points and five of Point’s eight goals have come on the power play. Superstar defenseman Victor Hedman has been spectacular as the quarterback of Tampa’s power play.
This could prove to be especially problematic for the Islanders. The Islanders have been one of the best penalty killing teams in hockey. That definitely has not been the case during these playoffs.
They gave up their fair share of power play goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins in round one and were even worse against the Boston Bruins. Over 40% of the goals that the Bruins scored in their six games against the Islanders came via the power play.
This is obviously uncharacteristic of New York, but it’s difficult to assume that the Islanders will turn it around and get back to being a top penalty killing team in this series.
Even if their elite penalty killing had translated into the playoffs, the Islanders would still be in trouble. That’s how great Tampa’s power play is.
Conversely, the Islanders have been uncharacteristically good on the power play. A below-average power play during the regular season has become a reliable one in the playoffs, although not as reliable as Tampa’s.
Not only is Tampa’s power play better, but so is their penalty kill. The Lightning conceded just two power play goals in their series against the Hurricanes, who had the second-best power play during the regular season.
This is not great news for the Islanders.
A quick breakdown of Tampa’s games by period will show you that Tampa is an excellent second period team and has just one loss when heading into the third period with a lead, meaning that the Islanders should ideally put up goals early.
This creates an interesting situation. To the dismay of Islanders fans reading this, the Islanders have been a poor first period team. In fact, they’ve had a grand total of zero first period leads in the playoffs.
However, like the Lightning, they’re an excellent second period team. The Islanders are an impressive 7-1 when going into the second with a tie score.
We can’t forget, however, that the Islanders did this against two very good teams, but teams that are not the Lightning.
The ideal scenario will be for the Islanders to figure out their first period scoring troubles and get on the board early while maintaining the pressure and initiative that they’ve exhibited in later periods during the playoffs.
Make no mistake, the Islanders truly are a great team, themselves. Their depth and excellent goaltending are the reason they’re still standing. Their depth players and goalies must continue to excel in what will be a tough series.
One of the most intriguing things about this Islanders team is that they were offensively great during last year’s run, but they’re even more so this year. In fact, they’ve actually outscored the Lightning during this year’s playoffs.
This is especially impressive given the fact that the Islanders are one of the very best defensive teams in the league and do pack some punch offensively, but that isn’t usually one of their strengths.
The fact that they’ve outscored a top offensive team in the playoffs is big and worth keeping in mind heading into this series.
We’ve mentioned that the Lightning’s power play is incredible and that the Islanders have been struggling on the penalty kill. For that reason, the Islanders must do one of the things that they’ve done best in these playoffs: stay out of the box.
The “New York Saints” have been the least-penalized team in the playoffs. This is a strength that they must play to more than before because of Tampa’s power play.
Stay out of the box, don’t lose a man, bring the pressure at even-strength. This is crucial to New York’s success.
Let’s take a look at some players and matchups.
The face of the Islanders, Mathew Barzal began to really heat up against the Bruins after a disappointing series against the Penguins.
He and Jordan Eberle have been doing very well and although playing alongside Leo Komarov instead of Anders Lee is a disadvantage, they’ve still been able to score and must only get better.
The “Killer B’s” are the talk of the town and have to be just that for the third series in a row. The second line did almost all of the team’s scoring against Pittsburgh and didn’t let up against Boston. Of course, nothing is perfect.
Defense has been New York’s issue when Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, and Brock Nelson are on the ice. These guys have been able to exceed expectations by relying on the counterattack and scoring on odd-man rushes.
For that reason, they are a defensive liability. They are the Islanders’ worst defensive line and concede more goals than any of New York’s other trios.
If this was a problem against the Penguins and Bruins, it will be even more so the case against the Lightning. Even so, offense from the second line is something the Islanders will desperately need. They simply cannot win without it.
Two of the Islanders’ three third liners are players to watch. All of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac- or Lou’s boys, as I like to call them- have contributed significantly to New York’s success in the playoffs.
They were especially impactful in round two. A great two-way forward, Zajac has done very well in Oliver Wahlstrom’s stead. After a good-not-great series against Pittsburgh, Palmieri caught fire against the Bruins.
“Playoff Pageau” has been just that. He’s a great two-way forward who is fantastic on special teams and leads the Islanders in scoring.
The Islanders haven’t needed these three guys to step up as much as they do now. It’s time for them to shine.
This will be especially important if this is the line that ends up matching up against the Lightning’s third line. The Lightning are praised for their depth, but their third line hasn’t been nearly as impactful as it was during last year’s cup run.
If it ends up becoming third line versus third line, “Lou’s boys” will become New York’s x-factors.
The Lightning don’t have many, but let’s talk about their weaknesses.
We mentioned their third line not playing as well as they usually do, but Ondrej Palat is another forward that hasn’t been playing his best hockey. Tampa’s top left winger, Palat has just five points in 11 games and hasn’t been able to do much offensively.
Palat is usually a fantastic player, so this is music to Islanders fans’ ears. However, the Lightning’s embarrassment of riches allows for top guys like Palat to slump.
He plays alongside Point and Kucherov, two of the team’s stars and two of the best guys in the league at their positions. They’re more than capable of picking up the slack when Palat falters, as we’ve seen so far this postseason.
Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that the Islanders will take the lesser of two evils in this scenario. A line with Point and Kucherov but a struggling Palat is much more favorable than a line of Point, Kucherov, and Palat all at their best.
Speaking of music to the ears, let’s talk Hedman. We’ve mentioned that Hedman has been nothing short of fantastic on Tampa’s power play. However, he’s actually struggled at even-strength.
His struggles could be injury-related, but the fact that the Lightning’s blue line features Jan Rutta and David Savard doesn’t help. Savard has been pretty disastrous and is easily the team’s worst player. Rutta hasn’t been much better.
Often the best defenseman in hockey, Hedman is crucial to Tampa’s success. If the Islanders can catch him on more bad days while staying out of the box to keep Tampa at even-strength, where they’re weakest, there’s definitely hope.
The Islanders are defensively superior and have to play like it.
The Islanders are a talented team, but they wouldn’t be here without luck. One of the things they’ve lucked into has been poor goaltending on the part of their opponents.
Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry was the main reason why the Penguins lost the first round. Boston’s Tuukka Rask was not his usual self and it was later revealed that he had been playing with a torn labrum in his hip.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is a different animal. Arguably the best goaltender on the planet, Vasilevskiy is having another great postseason and will be far from easy to score on.
The Islanders are an elite defensive team, but they’re going to have their work cut out for them.
Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, the team’s top blueliners and one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, have gotten better game by game, but still aren’t playing at the level that we expect them to.
Being anything short of exceptional in this series will be unacceptable. They need to play like the top defensive pairing that they were during the regular season.
Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield have been quite the pleasant surprise, Mayfield especially. Mayfield has arguably been the team’s best defenseman throughout the playoffs thus far and simply cannot slow down, either offensively or defensively.
In my Bruin series recap, I noted that Noah Dobson was a pleasant surprise at both ends of the ice. That was huge for them and if he can do it again against Tampa Bay, the Islanders will be in decent shape.
The Islanders need all the depth they can get and if they have reliable options in each of their defensive pairings, they’ll have a chance.
The Islanders have one of the best goaltending situations in hockey. We know that whichever goalie plays must be great, but there isn’t too much to worry about.
The Islanders’ goaltenders have been phenomenal aside from just a few starts. Whether it’s the rookie Ilya Sorokin or the seasoned veteran Semyon Varlamov, the Islanders have to and should be in good hands in net.
The Lightning are a historically great team and will likely top the Islanders to head to the Cup final once again. However, the Islanders are talented enough to take them on.
If any defense can stop Tampa’s prolific offense, it’s New York’s. And we can’t forget that the Islanders’ offense has been even better than Tampa’s during these playoffs!
The Islanders are also well-coached and having the best in the game behind the bench can only help.
The Islanders have been the underdogs throughout the playoffs and will carry that same title into this series. Then again, the Islanders have grown accustomed to being labeled as such and have done quite well despite it.
Will they be able to do the unlikely and make it to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1984?