ISLANDERS vs LIGHTNING
The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning enter their second round playoff series with lots of optimism but with an equal number of questions surrounding their ability to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
The Islanders enter this second round with hope as they were able to win a series against the favored Florida Panthers despite being outplayed them in 4 of the 6 games in their series. New York was able to prevail in multiple one-goal and overtime games, which is not necessarily a skill; but it does inspire confidence in a young team who found ways to win even though they would admit they did not play their best hockey throughout the series. The Islanders will continue to rely heavily on their dominant top line featuring star John Tavares; who single-handedly had 9 points (5 goals and 4 assists) powering a top Islanders line that was able to capitalize on the numerous penalties & mistakes the Florida Panthers made against them. The biggest key to the Islanders success in the 2nd round might be the play of goalie Tomas Griess, who prior to the 1st round many thought of as the weak link for an offensively minded club. However, Griess put all of those concerns to rest with a monstrous effort against the Florida Panthers allowing a mere 13 goals despite facing 234 shots for an astounding 1.79 goals against average, which was .57 goals less than his regular season average. Griess was filling in for injured starter Jaroslav Halak but he has now cemented himself as the starter for the foreseeable future as long as his strong play can continue. Whether Griess can keep up his improved play for a second series will likely by the biggest factor in determining the outcome of this series.
The optimistic storylines surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning have as much to do with their players not on the ice as they do with the players on it who won their first round series against the Detroit Red Wings. The recent news of their captain Steven Stamkos taking the ice for his first non-contact practice since his blood clot surgery, dominated the NHL newswire yesterday as it gave real hope for the first time since his injury was announced that he might be able to return to these playoffs if the Lightning are able to advance any further. Another key piece for the Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman is also practicing again with the team and rumors continue to swirl he might be able to return early in this series to give a big boost to the Tampa Bay defensive pairings. However, with no official time tables set for Stralman or Stamkos, the Lightning will need to rely on their top young offensive talents of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn who put up 20 points (10 goals and 10 assists) between the three of them in their first round series against Detroit. The Lightning know they have the advantage in net with Ben Bishop despite Tomas Griess’s strong play, Bishop bested his stellar regular season averages with a 1.61 goals against average in his five game against Detroit. Ben Bishop’s ability to completely steal a game like he did in the series clinching game 5 against the Red Wings, allows the young Lightning offense and depleted defense to operate with confidence that even if the Islanders get a clear scoring chance, there is a high probability Bishop will stop them. The big wild card for the Tampa Bay Lightning is the offensive breakout of their previously maligned young prospect Jonathan Drouin. No one knew how many minutes the recently recalled forward would see nor if his impact would be a positive or negative one against the Red Wings. After his explosive game 4, a 3 assist performance which singlehandedly swung the series for Tampa; it’s clear Drouin is capable of providing a tremendous positive impact for Tampa’s power play & even strength scoring chances. Drouin has shown his quick hands and dynamic skating can create a scoring chance anytime he has the puck on his stick. Lightning coach Jon Cooper’s ability to work Drouin in with a few different lines, allows Tampa the flexibility to counter whatever the Islanders may throw at them defensively. Unlike the Detroit Red Wings who play a very defensive pseudo-trap style of play, the Islanders prefer to open up the ice allowing their skilled forwards and centers to skate, but also allowing for open ice attacks from their opponents. This strategy should better suit a Lightning club who prefers to skate up tempo than play a grinding style, thus allowing their talented forwards who now include Drouin to find space and attack the net. The Lightning also have the advantage of a shutdown defenseman in Victor Hedman, who will likely be charged with blanketing John Tavares for most of the series. The Islanders while having solid defensive pairings have nothing close to Victor Hedman to throw at Tampa’s most talented offensive weapons, putting even greater pressure on Griess to perform at an elite level. Even if John Tavares is able to find success against Hedman, if the rest of the team offenses play to a draw, the series will come down to the goalies; which despite Griess’s strong play puts the Islanders at a clear disadvantage compared with the Lightning’s Ben Bishop protecting their net.
Series Prediction: Tampa in 6
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