The NHL Eastern Conference Finals are set. In a best of seven, the Tampa Bay Lightning will face the New York Islanders for the Prince of Wales Trophy. This series will determine who is the Eastern Conference Champion. More importantly, the winner then will move on to play for the Stanley Cup. Here is the Eastern Conference Finals Preview.
The Lightning have not played in a week since disposing of this year’s President’s Trophy winners, the Boston Bruins. The Islanders had to win their Game 7 Saturday night against the Philadelphia Flyers. This, after blowing a three games to one lead in their second round series. Whereas the Lightning should be healthy and well rested, the Islanders may be tired but a bit ornery. In any case, this has the makings of a very good conference final. So, let’s take a peek under the hood at these two franchises.
Jon Cooper of the Lightning is the longest tenured coach in the NHL. Six full seasons plus 16 games of a seventh that closed the dismal 2012-13 Lightning season. Biggest takeaway with this information is that NHL coaches are hired to be fired. To verify this, Cooper has to go no further than the opposing bench. Standing there is Barry Trotz. After fifteen years in Nashville as the Predator’s coach, Trotz was summarily dismissed. The knock was he couldn’t win the big games. So, Trotz moved on.
After landing in Washington, Trotz coached the Capitals to three consecutive second round playoff losses. Not to worry, in his fourth and final season in Washington, he led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup. Evidently, that Cup win wasn’t enough to keep Trotz in Washington. By the time the actual Cup began making the rounds with the Capital players, Trotz inked a deal with the Islanders. So, at the end of his second season in New York and he has his team playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Both coaches have won in the regular season, both have won big playoff series. Though in their last postseason meeting in 2018, Trotz and Washington beat the Lightning in seven games. Trotz has the big win-The Stanley Cup. That’s pretty much all Cooper has left to accomplish as this is his fourth conference final in his six years. Advantage: Islanders
ROLL OUT THOSE LINES
One common thread between these two teams is the level of confidence each coach has with all their lines. From top line to the fourth liners, both teams just keep the lines coming over the boards. In their Game 7 win against Philadelphia, the Islanders, their fourth liners averaged just under 15 minutes of ice time. In a must win non-overtime game, that is huge belief in your bench, give Trotz credit for that confidence.
During their epic five overtime game against Columbus, the Lightning were consistent with rolling out all four lines. It was definitely a factor in that historic win. Lightning coaches had supreme confidence in their lines and it showed against Boston. Most games in that series had the third line start against Boston’s “Perfection” line. Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman showed us perfection can sometimes be overrated.
The Lightning’s top line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov has led the way offensively. For the Islanders, it’s been their second line of Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier. Which line will produce? Which line will be stopped or at the very least held up a bit? Lightning Coach Cooper was quoted as saying Steven Stamkos is out for this series. So, the boys who beat Columbus to eradicate last season’s demon seed are going to have to be enough. The same boys that beat the hated Bruins will have to get it done. The Islanders will not be a walk in the park. Advantage: Lightning
The Lightning defense has played as well as they have in recent postseasons. Through their first two series and the round robin games, they have given up 2.31 goals a game. That’s good enough for third of all playoff teams. The problem is they are going against the second-ranked defensive team in these playoffs. The Islanders are giving up 1.94 goals a game.
Many times in the playoffs, the situation in games becomes the next goal wins. In this series it could be the first goal wins. These defenses are playing that well. For the Lightning, they have Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. The Islanders counter with Adam Pelech and Nick Leddy. This battle will be a game of who blinks first or who doesn’t.
The defensive match-up may come down to which units are rested and which one isn’t. This may bode well for the Lightning even if they have to shake some rust off. Advantage: Slightly to the Lightning
WELL, ISN’T THAT SPECIAL
The special teams of these two teams have been rather commonplace. Both power plays are operating at about 17%, under the coveted 20% mark all teams strive for with the man advantage. Both penalty killing units are killing between 81.3% (Lightning) and 82.2% (Islanders). While these kill percentages are generally acceptable numbers, both remaining Western Conference teams have been more effective this postseason.
To establish an advantage in special teams, it would behoove one of these teams to stop taking penalties. The flip side of that coin is to increase the production of the power play. For the Lightning without Stamkos this is a big ask. This may be the thing that can tip the scales in the Islanders favor. Advantage: Slightly to the Islanders
THE BLUE PAINT
In net, the Lightning have the Big Cat, Andrei Vasilevskiy and he is playing like the reigning Vezina Trophy holder. Saving 93% of the shots he’s faced with a goals against average of 1.91, Vasilevskiy is doing his job. Conventional wisdom dictates that he’ll continue to play at this level. However, if he gets in that zone, it will be Goodnight Irene for the Islanders.
For the Isles, Semyon Varlamov has been well, Vasilevskiy-like this postseason. His save percentage is slightly lower than Vasilevskiy at 92%. But here’s the rub. After leading the Islanders to a 3-1 series lead, Varlamov came down to earth. It started when he gave up four goals to Philadelphia in Game 4. Then he gave up five goals in Game 5 which led to Trotz starting Thomas Griess in pivotal Game 7.
Could there be a goalie soap opera in the making? Frankly, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we see Griess start any games in this series. That said, the Conference Finals isn’t the time to have any goalie controversy. Advantage: Lightning
WHEN THE DUST SETTLES
This series will be a battle between two well-coached teams. Obviously, both teams are coming off two playoff series victories. Two teams at the top of the conference. Both will enter the Eastern Conference Finals, only one will leave to go on for the Holy Grail, the Stanley Cup. Prediction: Lightning in six games.
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