The altered format of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs — where the final four teams were reseeded based on regular-season record — meant that we could have gotten some wild matchups in the Stanley Cup semifinals. Or, as is the case with this series, we’ll get to see a rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals, as the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the New York Islanders.
Beyond seeing these two elite teams square off again, there’s another factor that gives this series some juice: While the previous edition was held in the Edmonton bubble, this time around we’ll get to see (and hear) two zealous fan bases on full display.
Two great rosters. Two eternally wise coaching staffs. A lot of blue in the uniform sets. Let’s break it down position by position, assess the special teams and injury status of both clubs, and make a series pick.
First line: After missing the regular season with hip surgery, Nikita Kucherov has rampaged through the postseason with 18 points in 11 games. Brayden Point (12 points in 11 games) is one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. Ondrej Palat, who ducked a player safety hearing for a rough hit in Game 6 against Carolina, is a hardworking winger with two goals in the playoffs — both of them game winners.
Mathew Barzal (nine points in 12 games) has flown around the ice in the postseason and started really hitting the scoresheet against the Bruins. Jordan Eberle has eight points. Usually, Anders Lee would have filled out this line, but his season ended early due to a knee injury. Leo Komarov moved up to play with these two talented offensive players, bringing a grinding style but managing only three assists in the playoffs. There’s a reason this line generates more expected goals (2.05 per 60 minutes) than it actually finishes (1.44). Advantage: Tampa Bay
Forward depth: The big difference between the conference final meeting between the Lightning and Islanders in the 2020 postseason bubble and this one? Steven Stamkos, who is healthy and producing at an impressive clip (13 points in 11 games). He’s skating with two-way center Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, an outstanding playoff performer who already has six goals. The checking line of Yanni Gourde with Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman isn’t quite as effective offensively as it was last postseason, but is solid. Pat Maroon brings physicality to a fourth line with Ross Colton and Tyler Johnson.
The Islanders have been a better offensive team in the playoffs, going from a ho-hum 2.71 goals per game in the regular season to 3.58 goals per game in the postseason. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who skates with trade-deadline coup Kyle Palmieri (team-leading seven goals this postseason) and Travis Zajac, leads the Islanders with 13 points. Brock Nelson had two goals in their elimination game against the Bruins, and forms a pesky line with Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey. The Islanders have one of the league’s best bludgeoning lines with Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas. Advantage: Tie
Defense: Victor Hedman had an atypical season, playing through an injury, yet it was good enough to land him another Norris Trophy nomination. Much like in the regular season, his offense has outpaced his defense, with 11 points in 11 games. He typically partners with Jan Rutta. Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak have been the team’s most effective defensive pairing, with a plus-7 goal differential at 5-on-5. David Savard and Mikhail Sergachev have been fine in the eight games they’ve been paired together. Luke Schenn is the top reserve.
Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are one of the NHL’s most underrated defensive pairings and are the rock on which this Islanders blue line is built. Expect to see plenty of them against the Kucherov line. Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield are the second pairing, with Mayfield having had an outstanding postseason (+12) so far. Veteran Andy Green and Noah Dobson are the third pairing. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Goaltending: Andrei Vasilevskiy followed a regular season that should net him the Vezina Trophy with a dominant postseason, outside of a hiccup or two. The Lightning goalie has a .934 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average, with two shutouts.
Semyon Varlamov has started seven of the Islanders’ 12 playoff games, with rookie Ilya Sorokin getting the other action. Varlamov took over the crease in the Boston series, playing the last four games and winning three of them. He gave up two or fewer goals in four of the seven games. If the Islanders flip back to Sorokin, he’s ready for it: He’s 4-1 with a .934 save percentage this postseason. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Coaching: Jon Cooper has that classic great problem to have for an NHL coach: He’s considered one of the finest bench bosses in the league, but the team he manages is so deep and talented that he can be underappreciated. He worked hard to get the Lightning past some of the postseason obstacles they had to lead them to the Cup last fall, and knows this roster well.
Barry Trotz is considered by many the best coach in the NHL for doing the opposite of what Cooper does: He took a team that many felt was middling, turned it into a defensive stalwart and has guided the Islanders to consecutive third-round appearances. As crafty an operator working the bench as he is occasionally working the refs. Advantage: Tie
Health: The Lightning are relatively healthy, outside of the injuries their players are playing through. The Islanders have been without forward Oliver Wahlstrom, who has a lower-body injury but has been skating. Advantage: Lightning
Special teams: No team has scored as many power-play goals this postseason as the Lightning (15), who also lead the playoffs with a 41.7% conversation rate. The Islanders’ penalty kill has been a problem (61.5%); only one other team has given up 10 power-play goals in the postseason, and that’s Carolina, which just played the Lightning. The best advice for the Islanders: Live up to that “New York Saints” reputation, as the regular season’s least penalized team, and stay as far away from the penalty box as possible.
The Islanders’ power play (28.1%) is fourth in the playoffs, while the Lightning’s penalty kill (77.8%) is the second best among the four remaining teams in the playoffs. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Series pick: Lightning in seven. This could easily be one of those series where the home team holds serve. The Islanders have been as incredible playing at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum as the fans have been cheering them on. It’s hard to imagine that if this series goes six games, the Islanders would be eliminated in the old barn. So we’ll call it seven games, but in the end, the deeper and more talented team skates away to the Stanley Cup Final.