It’s here! A Stanley Cup Semifinal between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders begins this Sunday. This is a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Final which the Lightning won in six games. For the third time in the last four seasons, teams coached by Jon Cooper and Barry Trotz will meet in the postseason. In the two previous times, like this meeting, they played in the series to determine who plays for the Stanley Cup. Each coach won one of the previous series and then went on to win the Cup. Here’s my preview of this Stanley Cup Semifinal.
In 2018, the Washington Capitals then coached by Trotz met the Cooper led Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. Washington won that series in seven and went on to beat Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final. Last season, Cooper and his Lightning met Trotz, now coaching the Islanders in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning beat the Isles in six games last year and went on to beat the Dallas Stars for the Cup. Now, they meet in this rubber match of sorts.
One common thread with both prior Cooper/Trotz meetings besides winning the Cup was how hard fought both series were. In working on this preview, it is a given that this Stanley Cup Semifinal could be the hardest fought of the three. Will that give the winner a leg up in the Stanley Cup Final? Let’s take a look.
Of the four remaining teams in the playoffs, the Lightning boasts five of the top 10 in total points this postseason. Forwards Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn along with defenseman Victor Hedman make up this quintet. The Islanders have three in the top 10 themselves in JG Pageau, Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier.
To win this series, it will take the efforts of all four lines. In their previous series, both teams have seen their forwards come through. The forwards of both teams are averaging seven points a game. Like a lot of playoffs the top two lines are going to get theirs and most likely even things out. What kind of production will each team get from their bottom six forwards? Ultimately, it could determine the series.
Can the Lightning’s fourth line build on the play they showed in the Carolina series? Can Matt Barzal and Kyle Palmieri help the Islanders put the puck past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy? The question is which group of forwards rise to the occasion? I believe the difference will be the Lightning’s third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. While not scoring a ton in either of the first two series, this line was instrumental in the success so far for Tampa.
This third line for Tampa starts most games. It’s the energy line and the line that Cooper and the coaching staff relies on to grab momentum in a game. Their relentless forecheck puts the other teams on their heels. For a few years now, the Islanders have had one of the best fourth lines with savvy, productive veterans. Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck can be very effective and should give the Lightning some fits. Advantage: Lightning
Tampa boasts perennial Norris Trophy candidate Hedman to head their defensive corps. Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, David Savard and Jan Rutta round out their defensive pairings. While not household names, the Islanders have a strong set of defensemen who will try to shut down Tampa’s offense. Noah Dobson, Nick Leddy, Andy Greene and Scott Mayfield will do their best to throw the Lightning forwards off their game. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech round out New York’s corps and get the most ice time.
Through the first two rounds, New York has allowed 2.75 goals a game to Tampa’s 2.36 per game. At first glance, this difference might seem negligible. What possible difference can this make? Peeling the proverbial onion back, the Islanders allowed those 2.75 goals per game to Pittsburgh and Boston. These two Islanders playoff opponents averaged 3.19 goals per game in the regular season. The two Lightning playoff opponents (Carolina and Florida) averaged 3.25 goals per game during the season. Suffice it to say the Lightning held these two teams to only 73% of their regular season production. The Islanders defense held their first two series challengers to 86% of their regular season production.
As far as offense, the Islanders defensemen have 24 total points to the Lightning’s 23. Though the New Yorkers have 5 goals to none for Tampa. The offensive numbers are basically even but it seems the Lightning defense is being stingier than the Isles. Some might say that the goalie has a lot to do with the defensive performance of a team. It’s one of hockey’s chicken or egg stories. Does a tight swarming defense make the goalie better? Does a goalie standing on his head inspire the defense to clamp down? Advantage: Even
Trotz has basically split his goalies ice time in two. That’s not so unusual for the team defense concept coach. Both New York goalies are playing well. Ilya Sorokin has a slight edge in goals against and save percentage over Seymon Varlamov. As a tandem, they have saved 92.9% of the shots they have faced. For the Lightning, Vasilevskiy has saved 93.4% of the shots he’s faced and has allowed 2.24 goals a game.
At first glance it appears Vasilevskiy gives Tampa a slight edge but goalies can get hot from period to period. Varlamov and Sorokin are no slouches but neither are they four time Vezina Trophy finalists. Vasilevskiy is and many consider him to be the best goalie on the planet. Advantage: Lightning
The power play for the Lightning has been lights out. At 41.7% effectiveness, the Islanders have to stay away from the box. Committing penalties against this Tampa power play is nothing but an unforced error. The Islanders have been pretty good themselves with the man advantage scoring a goal 28.5% of the time.
Both teams fall short of the coveted 80% effectiveness in killing penalties. The Lightning are at 77.8% and the Islanders are killing only 61.5% of their opportunities. This could tip the series one way or the other. Whichever team can prevent the other’s power play goals could win the series. Since both teams are doing well in scoring power play goals, the ability to kill those chances will loom large.
With a healthy Kucherov, Stamkos and Hedman, can New York stop the best power play so far in the postseason? It may be possible but is not likely. Advantage: Lightning
Coaching and Intangibles
As I said above, this is the third Stanley Cup Semifinal between the two coaches. Beating Cooper in 2018, helped Trotz and his Washington Capitals win the Cup. When the Lightning beat Trotz’ Islanders last year was a critical step in their winning the Cup. Maybe the safest bet of all is that the winner of this series should be a favorite to win it all. One thing for sure is that both of these coaches will have their teams ready from the opening puck drop.
The biggest intangible besides any unforeseen injuries is the crowds. This is the last year for the iconic Nassau Coliseum. The New York crowds there have been downright intimidating to opposing teams thus far. It could lead to a perfect storm for New York that in the last year of this old barn, the team and fan base ignite a Cup run for the ages.
The Islanders are without their captain Anders Lee who isn’t expected to see the ice this postseason. That is a loss that the team has rallied around. Like Stamkos last year who only saw action in one game, the support of their leader could galvanize the Islanders to new heights. Advantage: Islanders
Stanley Cup Semifinal Prediction
The home ice belongs to the Lightning. So, after the first two in Tampa and the next two in New York, they alternate. I don’t see this series going the distance of seven games. That said, winning a Game 6 in the Coliseum is a huge ask of the Lightning. The Carolina Hurricanes had the second most points in the league during the regular season with 80. Without a deflected overtime shot, Carolina would have been swept by the Lightning. All cylinders are working for the Lightning. New York is a very good team but a healthy Tampa in my opinion is the best team in the NHL. Prediction: Lightning in five.
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