Islanders vs. Lightning matchups, prediction: Margin for error is thin

The Lightning have hovered among the NHL’s elite for more than a half-decade, this the team’s fourth appearance in the Eastern Conference finals over the last six years. We can stipulate that the Islanders have not been all that, with this appearance in the tournament’s final four marking the first since 1993.

But make no mistake. This is no mismatch of pedigree. One side has Lou Lamoriello in the executive suite and Barry Trotz behind the bench. The other party does not. In the year of 2020, the Islanders are as credible a Stanley Cup challenger as are their opponents. Now the team has the opportunity to prove it.

There is more star power on the Tampa Bay side of this series that commences Monday night under the Edmonton bubble following the Lightning and Islanders exits from Toronto over the weekend. There is more familiarity with Tampa Bay’s marquee names. But much of that might change once the international spotlight is shined on Mat Barzal, who has proved ready for his closeup, and on the less dazzling but equally effective Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey.

But the approaches of these teams are reasonably similar. Both go four-lines deep (even if the Lightning generally dress 11 forwards). Both seek to apply forecheck pressure and own the offensive zones below the hash marks. Both rely on defensive-zone structure, though no one on the Long Island side can match the edifice that is Victor Hedman.

The Lightning have been knocking on the door since the middle of the last decade. The Islanders have been left out in the cold for most of the last three decades. Opposites sometimes attract.

Islanders vs. Lightning Matchups

Offense

The Islanders are capable of scoring the ugly goals from dirty areas that are necessary to win playoff games but can produce pretty goals, too, when their skilled forwards get into open ice and have some time to create. Bailey has been a revelation with the puck. Derick Brassard, in his fourth conference final over the last seven years (Rangers in 2014 and 2015, Ottawa in 2017), has stepped up and the Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck line continues to form the base of the team’s blue-collar identity.

Meanwhile, the Islanders scored three or four goals in each of the seven games against the Flyers for a sum of 24. And that was with first-line right winger Jordan Eberle failing to score on 22 shots despite having an abundance of glorious opportunities. Eberle had a shooting percentage of 11.8 this year and finished the season with a career 13.1.

But he has scored three goals on 39 shots in the tournament (7.7 percent) on 55 scoring chances, 22 of them designated as high-danger chances by Natural Stat Trick. Imagine if No. 7 gets hot.

The Lightning generally don’t match their Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Nikita Kucherov top line against the opposition’s No. 1 unit, instead going generally with the Blake Coleman-Yanni Gourde-Barclay Goodrow unit as the shutdown match. That unit limited the Bruins’ Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak line to a sum of two five-on-five goals in the series. We’ll see if Trotz can upset the match and get Barzal out against Point, who leads Tampa Bay with 18 points (6-12), and his dangerous wingers. The swarm of remaining forwards include Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Pat Maroon, Anthony Cirelli and Cedric Paquette. It is an eclectic group that tends toward pugnacious puck possession. Steven Stamkos, who underwent core surgery in March and has not played yet in the tournament, was ruled out of the series on Sunday by head coach Jon Cooper.

Edge: Even

Defense

Scott Mayfield pretty much held off three forechecking Flyers by himself in pinning the puck against the boards for the final 21 seconds of Game 3’s 3-2 victory. Those are the winning types of plays he and his blue-line mates have been able to make while generally receiving much support from the forward group. The Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock first pair will be tested by the Tampa Bay first-line’s pace and talent. The defense can jump to create a five-man attack at opportune moments, but the team could use more of an offensive jump-start from the back end.

So in Games 2, 3 and 4 against the Bruins while Ryan McDonagh was sidelined with an injury, the Lightning dressed the following six defensemen in addition to Hedman: Mikhail Sergachev, Kevin Shattenkirk, Erik Cernak, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn and Braydon Coburn. Tampa Bay surrendered a sum of four goals at five-on-five in those three games, all victories in the five-game series.

McDonagh, who returned for the Game 5 clincher, has evolved into more of a defensive player since leaving the Rangers. Hedman towers over the group. And the team structure with and without the puck protects a defense that isn’t anywhere close to being as mobile as allegedly required for success.

Edge: Lightning

Goaltenders

There is apt to be a good old-fashioned goaltending controversy on the Islanders side at some point during this series, maybe even with Game 1, when nominal backup Thomas Greiss is in line to get the start over titular No. 1 Semyon Varlamov on Monday off of his work in Saturday night’s 16-save, 4-0 Game 7 clincher. Greiss allowed two goals on 64 shots in two victories over the Flyers while Varlamov, outstanding in the series victories over Florida and Washington, became vulnerable and perhaps fatigued as the Flyers’ series evolved. It is probably Greiss’ net unless the Islanders lose. Then, decisions, decisions, decisions.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has been stellar for the Lightning and is probably the co-leader in the clubhouse for the Conn Smythe with teammate Point. The goaltender has been extremely quick around the net, where the Islanders like to funnel bodies and pucks.

Edge: Lightning

Specialty Team

There has been little to choose between the teams, Tampa Bay 6-for-35 (17.1 percent) and the Islanders 10-for-59 (17.0) on the man-advantage, with the Lightning 9-for-48 (81.3) and New York 8-for-45 (82.2) while down a man.

Edge: Even

Coaching

Trotz is attaining near mythical status on the Island while Cooper has retained the Lightning’s attention throughout a remodel after falling short more than once in the postseason. Dynasties aside, the Islanders once went through that with Al Arbour.

Edge: Even

Prediction

The Islanders can win this, but they will have to be at the top of their game against the best opponent they have faced. Their margin for error is skinny, indeed, and probably too skinny to overcome what appears a noteworthy disparity in nets and at the top of the blue-line depth chart. Lightning in six.

Share this article:

Source: Read Full Article