For the first time in over 20 years, the New York Islanders will move onto the Eastern Conference finals to face the Tampa Bay Lightning.
This one is going to get weird. First off, the Eastern Conference is switching time zones for the remainder of the playoffs and joining the Western Conference in Edmonton. That’s a two hour time difference the teams are managing on a tight schedule. It’s also a time difference the Lightning started before the Islanders. Next, Tampa Bay has been a heavy hitter every year, consistently winning many games in the regular season and then blowing it in the playoffs. Remember last year when it took just four games in the first round after all the hype? The Islanders are a Cinderella story. No one favored them. No one honestly saw them making it very far. But Barry Trotz is the coach now and he is full of surprises.
Goaltending: is this in fact clear?
If you listen to announcers, Andrei Vasilevskiy is an unsinkable ship. They could be right. They could be wrong. If they’re right, it is because his numbers and play so far are pretty damn stellar. He’s the only remaining goalie to have played every single game. He is a stone wall, allowing 1.91 goals on average throughout the playoffs or the league best save percentage at .931%. It’s dumb. He’s dumb. And by dumb, I mean he’s just really very good and it’s scary for anyone. His best hockey is in overtime, where he is undefeated. I have nothing bad to say about him. I wish I did, but I don’t.
However, the Islanders have two solid goaltenders sharing the load. While Varlamov has taken the vast majority of games, Greiss has a stupidly solid set of numbers for the game he has played. Greiss is rocking a .960% save percentage and 1.08 goals allowed average. Collectively, Greiss and Varlamov’s average numbers are lower than Vasilevskiy’s. If we could put both of them in the net, they would in fact be the better goaltending option. But that’s probably true of anyone cause that’s two bodies in a tall space. If Trotz can keep making the right call for the right goalie at the right time, they have a fighting chance in the head-to-head match up. This wouldn’t be true of either team in the Western Conference.
Defense AKA the Islanders Money Spot
If the Western Conference is going to be won in rebounds, then the Eastern Conference will be won in the defense. Barry Trotz has created one of the most disciplined, system oriented hockey teams in the NHL. They have the least penalty minutes total and per game average. They cut off shots from their opponents and make ridiculous blocks. The Islanders have marked a style by always thinking defensively, including the forwards. They don’t let the opponent get quality shots and that simple strategy will win hockey games when a goalie is also playing well. A lot of analysts have called their play “suffocating”. I would say that is a fantastic word to use. It shutdown favored teams like Washington and Philadelphia. Look for Ryan Pulock to lead this unit against strong Tampa Bay scoring chances. But also, grey bearded Andy Greene is always a fun watch.
Tampa is a little different. While they do play a strong defensive game, they focus a lot on shots and created rebounds from their defensive core. Specifically, they rely on Shattenkirk, McDonagh and Hedman for these big, long shots that turn into scoring chances. Tampa is always attacking, even when they are trying to regain control of the puck. It is one of the things that makes them so successful. The unrelenting scoring attempts with strong reliance on their net minder can be like a hurricane for the opposing team. Their defense is good, but it isn’t the main event. For the Islanders, that is the whole event.
Offense that is like splitting hairs
Each team has explosive, creative offensive weapons at the front. The Islanders are heavily leaning on Matthew Barzal and his playmaking style of play. He is balanced by Pageau who is on fire right now and the strength in Barzal’s typical linemates: Lee and Eberle. Eberle’s scoring hasn’t been a major impact but his assists are opening chances for his teammates to score. The Islanders have played a couple more games than Tampa but they’ve scored fifteen more goals. The fire power can’t be denied.
Problem is, Tampa Bay is known for big goals. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Andrei Palat have all not posted massive goal tallies but every goal is impressive. These guys can score under pressure and work together to create chances no other team can make. They score close. They score far away. There isn’t a significant trend except when a goal needs to be scored, it ends up in the back of the net.
The big thing is these teams share a specific statistic. When they score first, they usually win. Look for these games to start with the goalie being pummelled. Both teams strive to assert dominance via the scoreboard and control the momentum of the game. That’s going to be the key.
Honestly, these teams aren’t all that different.
Both of them score a lot. Both of them play a strong end-to-end hockey game with few mistakes. They both have strong penalty kills and power plays. It’s all kind of similar. The difference is attitude. Tampa Bay has to prove that they won’t keep blowing it when it matters. New York needs to prove that they belong here because no one thought they would get through this far. I’m picking New York, mostly for the fun of it. And I just want Barry Trotz to prove that he doesn’t need Alex Ovechkin to win.
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