The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders have taken slightly different paths to the 2020 Eastern Conference Final.
The Lightning are the team that is expected to be here. They have been one of the league’s elite teams for six years now and are making their fourth different trip to the Conference Final during that stretch.
How good have they been during that time? Just consider that since the start of the 2014-15 season no team in the league has won more regular season games (297) or playoff games (46) than the Lightning. The only thing they are missing to cement their greatness is the Stanley Cup itself. They have been so close so many times but have not yet been able to finish the job. Is this their year?
The Islanders, meanwhile, are here to crash the party. Last year they were the plucky underdogs and feel good story, unexpectedly making the playoffs after losing their franchise player and going further without him than they ever did with him. While the 2019-20 season has been a bit more of a roller coaster, they have taken that success one step further and reached a point in the season their fans have not experienced in 27 years by convincingly beating two of the East’s best teams. Do they have one more performance like that in them?
We are about to find out.
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 6 New York Islanders
Game 1: Monday, Sept. 7, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 2: Wednesday, Sept. 9, 8 p.m ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Friday, Sept. 11, 8 p.m. ET – USA (livestream)
Game 4: Sunday, Sept. 13, 3 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Tuesday, Sept. 15, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Game 6: Thursday, Sept. 17, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Game 7: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
The Islanders were one of the league’s worst offensive teams during the regular season and one of the worst teams to enter the bubbles. But thanks to the addition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau (who really did not get a chance to play much with the team during the season) and some huge contributions from core players Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and Brock Nelson the Islanders have found a level of offense during these playoffs they have not had at any point over the past two seasons.
Barzal is their franchise player and is always a treat to watch.
But for as good as the Islanders have been in the playoffs offensively, the Lightning still come into this series as the more dangerous team offensively. Even with Steven Stamkos still sidelined due to injury.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season the Lightning’s 562 regular season goals are not only the most in the NHL, they are 39 more than the next closest team (Toronto at 523). Only two other teams (Toronto and Washington) scored more than 500 goals during that two-year stretch.
Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are constant threats, while they have an absurd level of depth throughout their forward lines especially after the trade deadline additions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, giving them an outstanding third line. They also have Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Ryan McDonagh bringing offense from the blue line.
The Islanders’ offense has played great for four weeks, and deserves a ton of credit for that.
The Lightning offense has played great for years and is the better unit.
This is an interesting one because even though the Lightning are known for their star power at forward, they still have an outstanding defense as well.
Victor Hedman is a constant contender for the Norris Trophy. Mikhail Sergachev is an emerging star. Ryan McDonagh is still solid as a top-four defender. Kevin Shattenkirk has fit in perfectly as a complementary player instead of having to be “the guy.” They have great individual talent on their blue line, and they turn it into success on the ice. They are far from a one-dimensional team, they can prevent goals almost as well as they score goals.
The Islanders, on the other hand, are a group that is better than the sum of its parts.
That’s not meant to be a slight toward the players on their defense, either. There are a lot of really good, overlooked players here, with Adam Pelech being at the head of that class. His absence in the second half of the season was a big part of their slide, and his presence has been felt in these playoffs. But the key to the Islanders’ success defensively is a disciplined, structured team-wide approach that take away everything from their opponents. They have spent this entire postseason frustrating and shutting down every star player and team that has lined up across from them, and have done so in dominant fashion. This isn’t a team simply getting by on goaltending or luck. They dominated Washington and Philadelphia (two of the top teams in the East).
Advantage: Islanders, but it is close.
Letting Robin Lehner walk in free agency and replacing him with Semyon Varlamov was a huge risk, but it has worked out just fine for the Islanders. Maybe Lehner is still the better goalie, but the duo of Varlamov and Thomas Greiss has given the Islanders what they need. And they have been able to rely on both of them in the playoffs, so much so that starting Greiss (the backup) in a Game 7 resulted in a shutout win. They have both been outstanding at different times in the playoffs.
The Lightning, however, have one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
He has been a Vezina Trophy finalist in each of the past three seasons and won the award during the 2018-19 season.
Putting a goalie like that behind a team with these forwards and this defense is almost unfair.
The Islanders have two really good goalies, but the Lightning have one great goalie.
On paper the Lightning would seem to have the advantage here on the power play given the talent they have at their disposal. They have not been great on the man-advantage during the playoffs (virtually identical success rate to what the Islanders have done) but it has been the better performing group over the larger sampling of the entire season.
Both penalty kill units have also been identical from the very start of the regular season, which should not be a huge surprise given how well both teams play defensively and the level of goaltending they are capable of getting.
The Lightning might get a slight edge in this department just because the power play is capable of being a little more dangerous with the talent they can put on the ice, but really this matchup is close to being a push.
Advantage: Lightning, but barely
Lighting in seven: The Lightning are the better team, but this is not going to be an easy series. Far from it, actually. The Islanders earned their spot here and are a legitimate threat to win it given the way they have played this postseason and the way they completely shut down the Capitals and Flyers (that series may have gone seven games, but the Islanders controlled nearly every game in it). There is no reason to think they can not do it again. But this is going to be the best overall team they have faced yet, and it is a team that does not really have a significant weakness. The Lightning have been so close so many times in recent years, and this is the year they break through. It is their time.
MORE STANLEY CUP COVERAGE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Final schedule
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.