John Tavares leads the plucky Islanders against the defending Eastern Conference champion Lightning.
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Regular season recaps
Nov. 28: Islanders 3, Tampa Bay 2
March 25: Tampa Bay 7, Islanders 4
April 4: Islanders 5, Tampa Bay 2
Islanders: D Ryan Pulock (upper body, 1-2 weeks), C Mikhail Grabovski (concussion, indefinite), G Jaroslav Halak (groin, indefinite), C Anders Lee (broken leg, indefinite) D Brian Strait (upper body, day to day)
Lightning: C Steven Stamkos (blood clot, 1-3 months), D Anton Stralman (broken left fibula, indefinite)
Keys to an Islanders victory
Here’s where the Islanders stand: They’ve gotten solid-to-excellent goaltending from a player who entered the postseason with just 108 career starts in the NHL since 2007-08—38 of them this season. Thomas Greiss began the regular campaign as a career backup and he’s going to exit the playoffs as, potentially, New York's future long-term starter. He was outstanding in the Florida series, posting a 1.79 goals-against average and .944 save percentage. He never allowed a bad goal, and in the last three games he gave up just four, making a combined 88 saves in the last two, including 41 in New York's thrilling Game 6, double overtime finale. So, hot goalie? Check. Hot player? Double check.
Captain John Tavares is an early leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. His five goals and four assists were factors in nine of New York's 15 goals in its six games against Florida, including two incredibly clutch tallies in Game 6; the equalizer coming with a tick less than 54 seconds left in regulation, the winner in his 34th minute of ice time. In Game 5 two nights earlier, he played 31 minutes.
Tavares will be the best player on the ice in this series. The problem is the depth behind him. Only one other Islander—linemate Frans Nielsen—scored more than one goal against Florida. In fact, other than the line of Tavares, Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, the rest of the Isles posted middling production. While they got big winning tallies from defenseman Thomas Hickey (Game 3) and rookie forward Alan Quine (Game 5), New York owns the worst remaining Corsi For percentage (45.4) in the playoffs. The Isles will need more from their fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck (a combined zero points) and forwards Nikolay Kulemin (one) and Brock Nelson (three). Some scoring from the back line (Hickey, Nick Leddy and Ryan Pulock chipped in three points apiece vs. the Panthers) will also be crucial.
In some respects, Tavares won the Florida series mostly by himself. Against an experienced Tampa Bay team that will surely be focused on stopping him, his job will be that much harder.
GALLERY: Top 10 New York Islanders of All Time
Keys to a Lightning victory
There were some people who thought last season that Ben Bishop was a fluke. Not anymore. After a Vezina-caliber season (35-21-4, 2.06 GAA, .926 save percentage, six shutouts), Bishop stormed into the postseason. In a dominant first round performance against Detroit, he posted a 1.61 GAA and .950 save percentage, never allowed more than two goals in a game, and shut out the Red Wings in Game 5 while denying 34 shots. The 29-year-old Bishop, who could’ve won the Conn Smythe last year had Tampa prevailed in the Stanley Cup Final vs. Chicago, is rich in postseason experience—in 30 career games, he has a 2.08 GAA and four shutouts. That caliber of play will be a huge plus until top pair defenseman Anton Stralman returns. Coach Jon Cooper has said there is a chance that Stralman could play against New York. Victor Hedman (27:02 TOI) has been getting the bulk of the work on the back line in a steady group (Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr, Nikita Nesterov and Braydon Coburn) that held Detroit in check (eight goals in five games).
“We’ve got some veteran defensemen that were able to step in and fill those minutes," Sustr told the team's website. "I think we all did a good job of stepping up a notch a little bit and playing for Strals. We definitely want to keep going so we get Strals back. And obviously we miss his presence. He plays big minutes for us. He’s part of the power play and any situation on the ice. We’re looking forward to having him back.”
Without sniper Steven Stamkos, the Lightning are once again getting big-time points from “The Triplets” line although this time there’s a new member. Nikita Kucherov (5-3-8) and Tyler Johnson (2-5-7) are back, but Alex Killorn (3-2-5) has added a dose of snarl to the unit. (The previous member, Ondrej Palat, scored a goal against Detroit but suffered a 17-point regular-season scoring reduction off his 2014-15 totals). Kucherov has quietly averaged 65 points the past two seasons, and taken on much of the offensive load in Stamkos's absence. Keep an eye on Jonathan Drouin. The once-disenchanted winger revived his game during his exile in the AHL and came back to contribute four assists in five games vs. Detroit. His speed and exceptional playmaking skills give the Lightning yet another weapon.
The Islanders are plucky, the sum greater than the parts. The Lightning are experienced, and are learning how to win without Stamkos (which might not be a bad thing, given his impending free agency). There are two things that give Tampa Bay the edge. While Greiss has been great for the Isles, Bishop has a longer and better postseason track record. And the Islanders simply do not have enough depth around Tavares to sustain the offensive pressure they need against the Lightning. There will likely be a few overtime games in this series, and we are sure to see more classic performances by Tavares. But the Lightning are better, deeper and more experienced and that's why they will ultimately prevail. Tampa Bay in six.