What a wild ride the eastern conference went through. All the talk, predictions, speculations and round robin play. We have two teams who go from Toronto to Edmonton to play in the conference finals, and one will go to the Stanley Cup Finals. Despite what people thought or predicted, this will be another David v. Goliath matchup, which should be exciting to watch. Time for the breakdown.
#2 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #6 New York Islanders
Struggle. That’s the one word and main thing these teams have been through, just in different ways. The Lightning, one of the premier teams with one of the deepest and talented rosters to ever grace the game, will reach its sixth conference finals in eight years. Despite this, they’ve made the championship round only once, losing in some fashion in those five runs (and lost in the championship to the Blackhawks in 2015). Their playoff matchups with the Columbus Blue Jackets will live in the minds of sports fans decades to come. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that after that five overtime win against the Jackets to open the playoffs, they would do every and anything to reach the conference finals. This is the team we’ve been waiting to watch for years, and they look to be in their peak.
Struggle has a lopsided meaning for the Islanders. The franchise’s first trip to the conference finals since 1993, they’re the hottest underdog in 2020. Struggling to score and struggling to win when the season stopped (with at least a seven game losing streak), the Islanders came ready to play and embraced the bubble life in Toronto. They’ve taken two of the top four seeded teams out in the East, costing one their head coach’s job. New York has found ways to get under every team’s collective skin they’ve played, throwing the Florida Panthers off-balance, bullying the Capitals and gradually playing better as a game goes on against Philadelphia.
Now to the series itself. Both teams look like they’re the total package in offense and defense. While Tampa gutted out four out of five games against Columbus, they smothered a loaded and dangerous Boston Bruins team, the last game without their two best players. Tampa’s learned that being the best offense in the league won’t cut it in a series, so they added tougher team defense in front of their blue line to compliment. Their third line of Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman could again prove to be the difference maker on the offense, as all three are physical, have a heavy presence in front of the net and don’t mind getting gouged up. Tampa will need their MVP Nikita Kucherov back to expand scoring opportunities and open passing lanes, so it’s important he comes back early in the series rather than middle or late.
A question that is probably not asked enough would be how are the Islanders going to approach or play the Lightning differently than they have their past three opponents? It’s possible New York could rattle Tampa Bay early on, smother them with defense, or frustration through no chances what-so-ever. Barry Trotz may want to give Thomas Greiss more playing time, since he’s been the better goal-tender in every game he’s played in. Contrary to years before Trotz came in to coach, Greiss has looked like one of the premier net-minders to show up and frustrate opposing offenses that were used to tricking him easily. Outside of who’s in net, defensemen Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews and Scott Mayfield have been excellent at not just their defense but getting scoring opportunities, opening lanes for their top scorers and being difference makers on special teams.
Key matchup of this Conference Finals: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh & Kevin Shattenkirk v. Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee
Three of the most decorated defensemen in the NHL, including one of the best to grace the ice in Victor Hedman, will be tested more as games go on against an extremely bright and fluid trio. Barzal has gotten better in every game and period he’s played in, while Jordan Eberle and team captain Anders Lee have played smart, physical and controlling, felt and shown when the team has had to go on offense or scored on the power play. Best believe that when said power play opportunities arise for the Islanders offense, we’ll see who could and will probably win each game by which trio comes out on top.
It’s important that the defensive trio for the Lightning has heavy pressure on them to be perfect, since New York proves time and again that once they have a lead, they slam the door on opposing offenses, frustrating teams more.
Prediction and Why: Tampa Bay Lightning Win Series 4-2. What did all three teams that played the New York Islanders have in common? They weren’t ready to show up early on and took the Isles for granted. This is why getting past Columbus was crucial to Tampa to go for a championship run. You can best believe the tempo will be set early in the first four games. Plus, Tampa is the only team in the east that knows how to handle a threat like this from start to finish.
Eastern Conference First Round Prediction Record: 2-2