The second round of the NHL playoffs in the Eastern Conference are now set. The two series that will determine which two teams will play in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals will begin this week. In one series, the Washington Capitals will host the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first two games of one match up. In the other series, the Tampa Bay Lightning play host to the New York Islanders in the first two games in the other match up.
Looking at the Lightning and Islander series closer, there are five keys that should determine which team goes on to the Eastern Conference Finals and is one step closer to playing for the Stanley Cup.
Let’s start by looking at the regular season. There were three games between these two clubs during the season, one in November which the Isles took by a score of 3-2. The last two games played were at the end of March and earlier this month as the regular season was coming to an end. The two teams traded lopsided victories in these last two games, Tampa beating New York 7 -4 on March 25th and New York flipping the script 5-2 on April 4th.
But this is the playoffs. A whole different season. While the teams have the same rosters for the most part, injuries are preventing some key players from any ice time in this series.
As it stands now, the Lightning will continue to play without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, although if this series goes deep, Stralman could return to the lineup. On the Islanders side they lost their top goalie, Jaroslav Halak, in mid-March to an apparent groin injury. While he could return soon his backup, Thomas Greiss, played superbly in Halak’s absence, maybe even having some of the Isles faithful rethinking the spot.
Thomas Greiss. 47 saves. Jaro who?
— Isles Nation (@NYIslesNation) April 23, 2016
Let’s focus on the five keys to this series and we’ll start with the goalies. Greiss has done a yeoman’s job in relief of Halak. Posting a 1.79 goals against average and stopping 94.4% of the shots you face is impressive work by Greiss. The bad news for the Islanders is that Tampa’s goalie, Ben Bishop, just helped his team out of the first round with a 1.60 GAA and a save percentage of 95%. Out-Greissing Greiss if you will. Additionally, last year’s deep playoff run by Tampa gives Bishop the advantage over Greiss in this series.
Halak could come back but he will no doubt be a bit rusty. New York Coach Jack Capuano would have a hard decision, especially if Greiss continues his stellar play. But Greiss and his mates will be facing arguably the best goalie in the league this year who has continued playing at a high level in round one. Bishop also has successful points of reference in the playoffs. When you look at the goalies, the Lightning have to get the edge in a big way. Strong advantage to Tampa.
There is no argument that John Tavares is as hot a player as there is in these playoffs. Scoring five goals and adding four assists in the series against Florida, Tavares carried his team on his back. Those nine points in six games is impressive, but so is what Nikita Kucherov did for the Lightning in five games. Matching Tavares with five goals, Kucherov had three assists in the five game Detroit Red Wings series. The key here for both teams is which team gets the necessary secondary scoring to help their hot hands in Tavares and Kucherov.
For the Isles, only Frans Nielsen of the team’s top regular season scorers held his own against the Panthers in round one. Brock Nelson, Nick Leddy and Kyle Okposo must support Tavares and Nielsen better in this round of games for the Islanders to tip the scales. On the Lightning, Kucherov was supported well by Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson, who combined for five goals and seven assists against the Red Wings. The issue for Tampa is that these three guys are on the same line, so if New York can find a way to slow them down, other Lightning players must step up to help the team score. Jonathan Drouin may loom large in this regard. No advantage to either team.
During the regular season, the Islanders were slightly lower than average with a 18.3% effectiveness on their power play. To their credit, in the playoffs they have jumped to a 23.8% performance in the first round. Before any celebrating takes place, understand that the Florida Panthers were 24th in the NHL with a 79.5% penalty kill success rate. The youth of the Panthers as well as their playoff inexperience showed especially in the penalty kill. That doesn’t take away the fact that the Islanders rose to the occasion and improved on their regular season mark.
It will be a more difficult challenge for New York in the second round. Through the first round, the Lightning have killed 96% of their penalties. During the regular season they were right there with the Islanders at 84%. The impressive part is that two of their main penalty killers in Stamkos and Stralman were missing from the Detroit series and a third important cog in the PK unit, J. T. Brown ,was hurt early in that series and still hasn’t returned.
For the Lightning, their power play during the season was atrocious. They were 28th in the league with a 15.8% rate on the power play. While they have increased their success rate to 17.4% in the playoffs, that is still not good enough for the other team to worry about taking a penalty in a key situation. Again, the wild card here is Drouin. He missed most of the regular season and is a new face on the power play unit. The thing for New York to be concerned with is that three of the four points registered by Drouin in round one were on the power play. If he begins to heat it up, that could spell trouble for the Islanders. No advantage for either team.
At the risk of repeating myself – 96%. The Lightning killed 96% of their penalties in the first round. They accomplished this without three key members of their regular season PK units. A big part of this is a result of Bishop but the players filling the roles for the injured players are stepping up in this critical situation. This isn’t to knock the Islanders who were 84.5% effective in killing penalties in the regular season and kicked it up a notch to 86.7% in the first round, but it isn’t 96%. Advantage to Tampa.
These two teams are pretty even. Both scored a hair over 2.7 goals per game this season. Both gave up less than 2.6 goals per game. Both win about 50% of their face offs and have continued that trend thus far in the playoffs. There is a strong possibility that the Lightning will get Stralman back sometime in this series. That not only makes them better defensively but the lift it will give his teammates is immeasurable, particularly his defensive partner, Victor Hedman.
Tampa has the home ice in the series and that could be a factor in who wins as well. So far, the Lightning have had three home games and won all three. The Islanders are 2-1 on the road and 2-1 at home. They should find that this Tampa team may not have won the Atlantic Division but for playoff experience, they are head and shoulders above the Panthers.
The Islanders have gotten past the first round for the first time in well over 20 years. They did take the Washington Capitals to seven games in the opening round last season, but for the most part, most of the roster has limited playoff experience. Over the last two seasons Tampa coach Jon Cooper has taken his team to the playoffs. Last year he coached his team to within two wins of hoisting the Cup. So, for all of the intangibles – Advantage to Tampa.
My prediction is that the Lightning will win this thing in six games. They are a confident bunch that has had a plethora of recent playoff success. They have one of the best, if not THE best goalie in the league this year. They have home ice and they should get their second best defender back in the lineup.
Oh yeah, to worry Isles Nation just a bit more, Stamkos skated today in practice (albeit in a no contact jersey) for the first time since his emergency surgery on April 4th.