The Eastern Conference Final begins Monday night. Tampa Bay’s route to this point started by landing the second seed after going 2-1-0 during the round robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. The Lightning eliminated Columbus in five games in Round 1 and knocked out Boston in five contests during Round 2. The New York Islanders stand as the only team among the final four that had to play their way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a best-of-five qualifying round series. New York eliminated Florida in four games before sending Washington home in five matches of a seven-game series. The Islanders punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference Final by dispatching the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Flyers in seven contests.
TAMPA BAY (2) vs. NY ISLANDERS (6)
Tampa Bay dropped Game 1 to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Second Round before winning four straight games to eliminate the 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winner. The Lightning feel they are a much more determined and hungry group following last year’s playoff disappointment and that has been evident so far this postseason. Tampa Bay has been defeated just three times since the NHL’s return, while posting 10 victories. This marks the fourth time that the Lightning have made it to the Eastern Conference Final in the past six seasons.
For the New York Islanders this is the team’s first trip back to the Eastern Conference Final since 1992-93. The Islanders squandered a 3-1 series lead against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Second Round, but dominated Game 7 to advance. New York allowed just 16 shots on goal in a 4-0 shutout of the Flyers with Thomas Greiss between the pipes. Greiss made three appearances in the series, including two starts, after Semyon Varlamov had been the team’s goaltender of choice. There’s a good chance that Greiss will be back in goal for the start of the Eastern Conference Final, but Varlamov could find his way back into the crease at some point.
There’s no doubt who will play in goal for the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been superb in the postseason, while playing in every game. He has registered 10 wins with a 1.91 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 13 appearances. He stopped 147 of 157 shots for a 1.79 GAA and .936 save percentage against the Bruins.
Brayden Point and (six goals, 18 points in 13 games) Nikita Kucherov (four goals, 16 points in 13 games) have shouldered the load for the Lightning offensively. Steven Stamkos hasn’t played and he has been on the ice sparingly since the restart, while rehabbing from a lower-body injury. He hasn’t been ruled out for a return this postseason, but he is out indefinitely and it’s unclear when he will be available. Ondrej Palat, who is the third member of Tampa Bay’s top line, heated up versus Boston, while Victor Hedman had a productive series as well. He scored the series-clinching goal in the second overtime period of Game 5 to propel the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Final.
Josh Bailey has been the most productive player on the Islanders, while leading the team with 17 points and 15 assists. Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal have been a good one-two punch down the middle for New York, while Jean-Gabriel Pageau has been a valuable addition on the third line.
Michael Dal Colle subbed in for Leo Komarov in Game 7 and Johnny Boychuk hasn’t played since Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers versus Florida. Ross Johnston could be an option for the Islanders if the series gets chippy.
Tampa Bay dressed seven defensemen and 11 forwards for four straight games against Boston. Ryan McDonagh, who was injured in the series opener, returned in Game 5, which provided the team with a boost. Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn stepped up during McDonagh’s three-game absence. The Lightning could shift back to using 12 forwards during the Eastern Conference Final and if they do then Mitchell Stephens, Carter Verhaeghe and Alexander Volkov are options to join the lineup instead of Schenn. (**Note that Schenn has not been playing as a forward)
Tampa Bay should be considered a heavy favorite in this series, but the Islanders shouldn’t be written off completely. New York plays a stingy game defensively, but the Lightning won’t be facing a team that sits back like Columbus did. Tampa Bay would certainly benefit if the power play gets engaged. The Islanders had some trouble on the penalty kill before shutting down the Flyers last round. This will be a physical series and it will be interesting to see if the Islanders can smother Tampa Bay like they did their previous opponents. The Islanders won’t have to worry about rust like Tampa Bay going into the series, but that additional rest could also be a big advantage for the Lightning. The Lightning will be far and away the best team that the Islanders have faced in the postseason.
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Tampa Bay Projected Lineup
Ondrej Palat picked up at least one point in all five games against Boston during Round 2, while supplying five goals and two assists in the series. He will take a four-game goal streak with him into the next round. Brayden Point extended his postseason point spree to six straight games after recording one goal and seven helpers in five outings versus the Bruins. Victor Hedman has four goals and two assists in his past five matches.
Tyler Johnson earned two assists in five outings against Boston. He has one goal in his last 10 contests. Alex Killorn had two goals and one assist in Game 3 versus the Bruins, but he hasn’t earned a point in eight of his past 10 appearances.
NY Islanders Projected Lineup
Brock Nelson wrapped up the second round with four goals and three assists during a four-game point streak. Derick Brassard also heated up against Philadelphia with two goals and two helpers over a three-game point spree to finish the series. Josh Bailey has collected six assists in his last four outings.
Anthony Beauvillier had two goals and one assist versus the Flyers. He was red hot to start the postseason, but he has started to slow down offensively. Ryan Pulock was also productive out of the gate, but he has recorded a mere two assists in the past nine games.