Stanley Cup Finalists last spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning were given the second-best chance — after Anaheim — to win The Mug this June before the season started.
That was the word from our sport’s bible, The Hockey News, alias THN as the Islanders and Bolts prepare for the second round opener on Wednesday night in Florida (MSG+ will have complete post game coverage after the game).
“There’s no reason to believe Tampa’s young core and kinetic offense won’t keep it in the Cup hunt,” THN predicted.
Actually, there are many reasons to believe that Jack Capuano‘s contingent can contain the Bolts vaunted offense and solve its goaltending behemoth, Ben Bishop.
Reasons A, B, and C comprise Tampa’s missing persons — Captain Steven Stamkos, defenseman Anton (Remember Me) Stralman and irritating forward J.T. (Just Trouble) Brown.
That terrific trio notwithstanding, the Lightning — coached by the very astute Jon Cooper — still present a formidable foe.
Except for the NHL, Cooper has won a championship at every level he’s coached. After getting within two wins of the Cup last year, Coop is champing at the bit.
“The pilot light’s been lit,” he warns and his club’s relatively quick five-game first-round triumph over Detroit underlines his point.
Ditto for the Islanders whose confidence has been reinforced by a unique set of histrionics — some call it a “sports miracle” — that constructed the six-game first-round upset of the Panthers.
That said, let’s examine the matchup and then get to precisely how the Brooklynites can march into the third playoff round:
TAMPA BAY: Minus sharpshooter Stamkos, the Bolts still boast an awesome arsenal with accurate cannons manned by Nikita Kucherov — deadly vs. Detroit — Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. The 11th-hour addition of 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin — he appears to be playoff-ready — somewhat offsets the loss of Captain Steven.
Add to that the ever-reliable Alex Killorn-Valtteri Filppula duet and ex-Rangers Ryan Callahan-Brian Boyle and it’s evident that the front line is experienced, varied and threatening right down to the fourth line. The Bolts’ offensive success comes from the depth of the forward group.
ISLANDERS: Like their enemy, the Isles have lost offense, including Anders Lee, Mikhail Grabovski and possibly Josh Bailey. So far,John Tavares has been IT up front with some meaningful help from Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. Rooke Alan Quine has added spark along with speedy late-season acquisition Shane Prince.
What’s imperative is more oomph from the likes of Brock Nelson and, if he’s returned to the lineup, the erratic Ryan Strome. The upside is there but — to succeed in this series — they must intensify their compete level to make a difference. The Marauders — alias “The Fourth Line” of Cal Clutterbuck–Matt Martin–Casey Cizikas — awakened in Game 6 vs. Florida. That unit could tilt the series in New York’s favor.
LIGHTNING: Victor Hedman, drafted right after Tavares in 2009, is head and shoulders over most NHL back liners, both physically and talent-wise. His two-way excellence is complemented by Brayden Coburn and Jason Garrison, who packs a mighty point shot. The rest of the primary unit — Matt Carle, Andrej Sustr Nikita Nesterov — is effective, but hardly overwhelming.
ISLANDERS: Tenacity and sagacity are the keys. Against Florida, virtually every defender had challenges clearing the zone yet they often were in the right spot to make the big play when it counted. Nick Leddy, in particular, has grown into an offensive star.Travis Hamonic has been “Ole Reliable” while Thomas Hickey, though undersized, compensates with smarts and guts. To win this series, the Isles need Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan to bring their A-Games. Marek Zidlicky‘s heroics in the last two games could win him a return spot vs. the Bolts.
LIGHTNING: Never before has Tampa featured such depth, starting with Ben Bishop, followed by Andrei Vasilevskiy. Bishop’s size and experience can be intimidating, but low shots can be his nemesis. Over three games this year, the Isles beat him a dozen times, but he produced a .950 save percentage against Detroit and is at the top of his game.
ISLANDERS: Thomas Greiss has grown from a trivia question to an early Conn Smythe Trophy candidate. He was the difference-maker as the club’s last line of defense against Florida, besting Roberto Luongo. Cool, calm and collected, he’s ready for another challenge.
LIGHTNING: The power play potential is immense with Hedman at the point and the Johnson-Kucherov-Drouin unit up front; the second outfit — Callahan-Palat-Kilorn ain’t bad either. Suffice to say that the Bolts penalty kill was the best in the first round.
ISLANDERS: Having gone 5-for-21 in the first round, the power play can work but more shooting is necessary. Tavares-Okposo-Nielsen know what they’re doing and Boychuk’s piledriver shot is terrific — when on net. The shorthanded unit remains one of the NHL’s most reliable.
LIGHTNING: Cooper’s brilliance is demonstrated by the manner in which his club has succeeded without Stamkos-Stralman, not to mention the agonizing Drouin holdout. Wise, patient and thoughtful, Cooper has been to the Final and knows the score.
ISLANDERS: No coach knows his players and which buttons to push better than Cappy. His ability to spring his club into the second round says volumes about his leadership growth.
LIGHTNING: Built on speed and skill, the club is able to play the game fast and has a roster sprinkled with players with a strong hockey sense.
ISLANDERS: Tavares has proven his leadership qualities. His message to his mates should be that they got hot at the right time against Florida and could do it again.
LIGHTNING: Jonathan Drouin.
ISLANDERS: Shane Prince.
HOW THE ISLANDERS CAN WIN THE SERIES:
1. Tavares continues his imposing scoring performances.
2. Greiss stays on course.
3. Kucherov and Johnson can be problematic; if they aren’t, advantage Isles.
4. This from Gus Vic: “If the Islanders Fourth Line hits the Tampa defense relentlessly — and Greiss continues to be stellar, the Isles can win the series.
We shall see.
Islanders in seven