The NHL has reached the final four of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After the Western Conference Finals began on Sunday, the Eastern Conference Finals start Monday in Edmonton with a series between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Here is a preview for Game 1, including how each team arrived at this point, as well as how they fared this season against each other. So far, Tampa Bay is a -150 favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
The Road to the ECF
The Islanders (35-23-10) finished fifth in a tough Metropolitan Division during the regular season. Still, it was more than good enough to earn them a trip to the bubble for a qualifying round matchup with the Florida Panthers. New York wasted no time, dispatching the Panthers in four games in a best-of-five series and moving on to play the Washington Capitals.
New York displayed its strong defense once again, winning the first three games of that series without allowing more than two goals in a single game. After Washington got one back to stave off elimination, the Islanders blanked it in Game 5 to advance to the second round, where they would face the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Flyers.
Both teams traded wins to open the series before New York snatched Games 3 and 4. On the verge of being eliminated, Philadelphia rallied to win the next games in overtime. However, in Game 7, the Islanders dominated en route to a 4-0 win, booking a trip to their Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 1993.
As for the Lightning (43-21-6), last year’s President’s Cup winner was still very good this season, finishing second in the Atlantic Division and avoiding the qualifying round altogether.
During the round-robin seeding games, Tampa Bay won a pair of close games against the Capitals and Boston Bruins to play for a chance at the top seed in the conference. They fell short 4-1 to the Flyers, settling as No. 2 going into the first round.
As luck would have it, the Lightning opened the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the same team that swept them out of the playoffs last season in one of the biggest upsets in NHL history. But Tampa Bay got its revenge this year, taking four out of five against Columbus and advancing to play the Bruins.
Last year’s conference champions took Game 1, putting the Lightning in an early hole. But Tampa Bay quickly responded with an overtime win and a 7-1 drubbing to take control of the series.
The Lightning then won the next two games as well, with the series clincher coming in overtime as they won yet another series in five games, advancing to the conference finals for the fourth time in six seasons.
In these two teams’ three meetings this season, it was New York who got the better of them. In early November, led by multi-point efforts from left wing Anders Lee and center Matthew Barzal, the Islanders cruised to a 5-2 win.
In the second matchup, that came a little over a month later, center Brock Nelson scored two goals to give New York a 5-1 win. Semyon Varlamov also made 31 saves in the game, and it was also the second time New York scored three goals in the final period.
However, just over a month before the season was suspended, Tampa Bay avoided the season sweep. In a dominant defensive effort in which Andrei Vasilevskiy only faced 18 shots, the Lightning won 3-1. Center Brayden Point was the main catalyst on offense, scoring the game’s opening goal and dishing out an assist.
Keys to Victory
New York will win if: It remains tough and disciplined. The Lightning are chock full of talent, headlined by former Hart winner Nikita Kucherov and Norris winner Victor Hedman. But the Islanders are a scrappy team that plays tough defense and utilizes a strong forecheck to wear down opponents.
It’s not a complicated gameplan by any means, but it has worked out well through three series and will need to be effective again to advance to the final.
Tampa Bay will win if: Secondary scoring comes through. The names mentioned earlier, like Kucherov, Hedman and Point, have all come through this postseason for the Lightning. But New York is deep, especially in its bottom six, so Tampa Bay will have to find a way to get production from the forwards in its bottom six.
Left wing Patrick Maroon and center Tyler Johnson are a couple of the players to watch this series, as their offensive output will go a long way to beating the Islanders and getting the Lightning back to the Cup.
There’s no doubt that the Islanders are a team who can match up against anyone. But their first three opponents were not nearly as complete as the Lightning are.
Tampa Bay comes in rested, and with Kucherov seemingly healthy and ready to play after getting hurt in the Boston series. While I expect New York to make this a very competitive and potentially long series, I’m going with the rested, more experienced Lightning team to win Game 1.
Pick: Lightning -150