The New York Islanders have been the underdog all postseason, but they are once again a series win away from their sixth career trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The Islanders finished in fourth place in the MassMutual East Division, though they made the way out to the semifinals by beating both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins in six games. Up next, they will have a rematch from last year’s Eastern Conference Final when the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Islanders in six games en route to their championship. Here is a look at three keys for the Islanders to be successful.
For as well as the Islanders’ power play has looked, the penalty kill has struggled in the playoffs. In the regular season, the team finished sixth in the league at 80.6 percent. However, in the postseason, the Islanders have struggled immensely. They have given up 10 goals in 26 attempts. Of the four remaining teams left in the playoffs, they are last on the penalty kill. There will likely be very little personnel change as Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck have been staples for much of the past few seasons. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, and Travis Zajac are all likely to see time. They will be up against Tampa Bay, who currently is above 40 percent on the man advantage.
The Islanders will also need their power play to click. Unlike their penalty kill, their power play was subpar in the regular season. They finished at 18.75 percent but have seen their unit improve. The team has scored nine goals in 33 tries, including three in a game against the Bruins in Round 2. Once New York gets set in the offensive zone, they are highly successful, but their zone entries have set them back. While his ice time is limited, especially in the third period, Noah Dobson has been the quarterback on the power play, and Mat Barzal and Kyle Palmieri have been able to score with their terrific shots. The Lightning currently are at 77.8 percent and are always a threat to score shorthanded.
Four Line Consistency
Not many teams have as much consistency as the Islanders do, and they will need that once again against a deep Tampa Bay team. On most nights, Barzal’s line with Leo Komarov and Jordan Eberle will see plenty of ice time, but in Game 6, Barzal saw a season-low 10:58 of ice time. That didn’t hurt the Islanders, as the Brock Nelson, Pageau, and Cizikas lines came to play.
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Nelson, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier have been playing terrific, while Pageau, Palmieri, and Zajac have done a great job against the opponent’s top line. In recent years, Matt Martin, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck have matched up against the opponent’s first line, but Pageau and his wingers have taken over and did their best to slow down Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.
They will have to do the same against the Lightning’s trio of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov. Still, the Lightning has a line of Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and Anthony Cirelli that can produce offensively, as well as a strong fourth line of Pat Maroon, Tyler Johnson and Ross Colton.
Two of the top three goaltenders will arguably face off in the semifinals as Semyon Varlamov will face Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning has the edge on paper, although Varlamov has been nothing short of sensational since taking over for Ilya Sorokin In Round 2. Varlamov is currently 4-3 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.65 and a save percentage (SV%) of .925. For much of the games he has started, the Islanders have been heavily outshot and could likely see something similar with the Lightning’s explosiveness and their active defensemen.
For Vasilevskiy, he is coming off a 29-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes. He has a 2.24 GAA and an even better .935 SV%. However, when he struggles, Vasilevskiy has had a hard time of limiting the damage. He comes in with a record of 8-3, but has allowed at least three goals in his three losses. He gave up six against the Florida Panthers in Round 1 and has given up at least three in five games. In the matchups he does not, Vasilevskiy has a pair of shutouts as well as three games where he allowed a single goal.
For the Islanders to win, they will need to have to gain an advantage on special teams. If they can improve their power play to around 20 percent and have a penalty kill in the 80 percent range, they will have a chance to be successful. Also, they will need all four lines to contribute, as well as continue to get great goaltending from Semyon Varlamov. Game 1 is set for Sunday at 3 p.m. in Tampa.