The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning couldn’t be further apart in their play style. The Lightning are stacked top to bottom and feature Hart and Vezina Trophy winners, 60-goal scorers, and a Norris Trophy winner. And while the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie during the 2017-18 season, on paper, the Lightning outmatch the Islanders in every way. But, what the Islanders have that the Lightning don’t is a rock-solid team identity. So what will win out? Does hard work beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard, as Herb Brooks once said?
A Proven Formula
It’s difficult to find a hole in the Lighting’s game. The defending Stanley Cup Champions are built like a perennial contender and their success over the last 10 seasons is tops in the league. They’ve made the Conference Finals or better in five of the last seven seasons, including hoisting the Stanley Cup last summer. In the salary cap era – regardless of the shenanigans they pulled this season – it’s nearly impossible to be as good as the Lightning have been for as long as they have.
Up and down the roster, you can find home-grown talent, born and bred with the Syracuse Crunch, making a difference with the Lightning. That includes Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, among plenty of others. Head coach Jon Cooper gets the most out of his players, too. Kucherov has 19 points in 12 playoff games this postseason, the most in the league. The Lightning have three other players in the top-10 in playoff scoring in addition to a top-10 goalie. This offensive-minded team, mixed with Victor Hedman and crew on defense, plus an all-world goaltender, makes for a special group that is nearly destined to make deep playoff runs every single season.
Lunch pail effort. Blue-collar mentality. Whatever you call it, the Islanders are the epitome of these cliche hockey one-liners describing a team’s effort and willingness to win through effort, toughness, and getting to the dirty areas. What’s really impressive about this group, led by head coach Barry Trotz, is their ability to stick to their game plan and their identity on a fairly regular basis. Unlike the Lightning, the Islanders are more than the sum of their parts. Outside of Barzal, very few players will wow you. But it’s their collective effort that has helped them win five playoff series in three seasons and reach back-to-back Conference Finals.
This isn’t to say they don’t have talent on their roster. On the contrary; I’ve often said on the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast the Islanders essentially have three second lines and a fourth line. That’s more than a lot of other teams and it allows Trotz to be comfortable with whoever he puts on the ice in nearly any situation. A different line shows up every night to help continue the team’s progress. But it’s the team’s collective effort and the understanding of every player on the roster that has truly been the difference-maker for this team. After all, parts of this team’s identity were forged over a decade ago, but it needed the right coach and additional support players to get them to where they are now.
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“That’s what we have to do,” Trotz said in his postgame media availability following Game 1. “It doesn’t matter who we play against. We know who we are, we know the way we have to play. It was good from a confidence side that you get to your game and have success. We know that. It’s not a revelation or a big surprise or something like that. Guys were dialed in and knew what we had to do and got it done.”
The Islanders’ identity and style of play helped to give them a 1-0 series lead against the Lightning in this year’s Stanley Cup Semifinal, and it’ll take every ounce of effort they have to steal both games on the road. They’ll have their hands full as the Lightning regroup for Game 2 on Tuesday night.
Want more Islanders content? Check out the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast, hosted by The Hockey Writers authors James Nichols and Jon Zella. Follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts!
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.