Lightning vs. Islanders predictions, schedule, odds for 2020 Eastern Conference finals

This is a tale of two teams.

One is a team in the Stanley Cup’s Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years. The other is making its first trip to the final four since 1993.

The former, of course, is the Lightning, who last played a game in what feels like 100 years ago but was really just a week ago Monday when they knocked out the defending Eastern Conference champion and 2020 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins in five games.

You’ve got to think this team is also incredibly motivated to go all the way to erase the memory of them being swept out of the playoffs last year by the Blue Jackets.

The other team is the Islanders, who are the only squad among the four teams remaining to advance out of the qualifying round. They beat the Panthers in four, and then head coach Barry Trotz’s exes, the Capitals, in five, and then the Flyers in a Game 7.

While both teams bring staunch defense and high-octane offense (yes, we are talking about the Islanders here, too), the best part of this matchup will be watching two masterminds behind the bench in Trotz and Jon Cooper as they try to outduel each other.

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning (-190) vs. (6) New York Islanders (+165): Schedule, breakdown, prediction

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For up-to-the-minute odds: Sportsinsider.com

Season series

The regular-season games are interesting snapshots along each team’s road to Edmonton. 

When the Isles notched their two wins, the Lighting were 14-11-3 after the second one and not a great club. By their February matchup, Tampa Bay had won 10 in a row from Dec. 23 to Jan. 11 and was in the midst of an eventual 11-game winning streak when it beat New York.

When the Isles won the first meeting, they were two games away from wrapping up a run of 10 straight wins. When they won the second matchup, they were an impressive 20-7-2. The loss came during a time of inconsistency  — win two, lose one, win two, lose four. The Isles eventually lost their last seven games before the March coronavirus pause.

Note: Let’s be realistic. This was so long ago, the season series is kind of moot.

Offense

If you thought the Islanders would have the better goals-for-per-game going into this series, then you’re a liar.

Tampa Bay led the NHL with 3.47 GF/GP during the regular season while the Islanders were 22nd (2.78). Since heading to the bubble, however, the Isles have posted 3.38 GF/GP and the Lightning have dropped to 3.00. 

Things look pretty even between these two squads at 5v5 inside the bubble, per Natural Stat Trick; however, when you take into account all scores, there are a few big categories that lean in the Lightning’s favor. For example, Corsi For percentage is 54.06 to 49.14 for Tampa Bay, and Scoring Chances For percentage is 53.68 to 51.27. The Islanders do shade higher on Expected Goals For percentage (56.45 to 52.00), but analytics do not describe the full force of Tampa’s attack.

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Sure, the Islanders do have a stingy defense, but the Lightning have impressive firepower — and that’s without captain Steven Stamkos, who has yet to suit up for summer hockey and has been ruled out for the ECF. Brayden Point has led the way with six goals and 18 points. Then there’s Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, the highlight-reel Blake Coleman and Ondrej Palat, who enters the series on a four-game goal-scoring streak (five goals total).

As for those guys from Long Island, they have the most goals scored (54) among the teams in the final four. They’re being led by longtime Islander Josh Bailey (17 points), Anders Lee and Brock Nelson (four goals vs. the Flyers), and they have a balanced attack across all four lines.

Edge: Push, because the Isles have been an offensive juggernaut in the bubble.

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Defense

The Lightning possess one of the best defenses in the game, headlined by Norris Trophy finalist Victor Headman. It doesn’t hurt when you can look down the depth chart and see Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian and Ryan McDonagh on the blue line along with centerman Anthony Cirelli, who should have been a Selke Trophy finalist in 2020. Cirelli may be struggling a tad in the postseason, but Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow are picking up the slack in their defensive forward roles.

Everyone knows the Islanders are a defensive squad. During the 2019-20 season, Trotz’s crew allowed the fifth-fewest goals (190, tied with the Blues). They allowed 2.79 GA/GP (TBL was at 2.77), although the average was 2.66 before they went through that seven-game losing streak to close out the season. In their 35 wins in 2019-20, the Isles posted a 1.91 GA/GP (3.71 GF/GP), but in their 23 losses, they averaged 3.91 GA/GP (1.43 GF/GP).

In the bubble, two averages have been equivalent: 1.09 GA/GP, 3.64 GF/GP in wins; 3.80 GA/GP, 2.80 GF/GP in losses. Basically, if the Lightning get goals in bunches, then it could be bad news for the Isles.

Edge: Lightning.

Goaltending

Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner and 2020 finalist, solidifies Tampa Bay’s net presence. He has posted a league-best .931 save percentage, a 10-3-0 record and a 1.91 goals-against average in the bubble. Since the start of the playoffs, he has bumped up that save percentage to .933 in 10 games. Against the Bruins, it was .936 to go with a 1.79 GAA. Oh, and he has produced a league-best 6.03 Goals Saved Above Average in the bubble at 5v5 (according to Natural Stat Trick).

On the Islanders’ side, Trotz has had Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss take turns in net. Greiss was in goal for Game 7 after Varlamov was on the losing end of Games 5 and 6 against the Flyers. Game 7 was only Greiss’ second start and third appearance in the postseason, but he does have an impressive 1.08 GAA and .960 save percentage in those games. Varlamov is no slouch, of course, with a 2.00 GAA, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in 14 games. At 5v5, Greiss has a 2.90 GSAA and Varlamov is at 1.79.

Edge: Lightning.

Special teams

Compared to the regular season, the Lightning’s power play has dipped from 23.1 percent efficiency to 17.1 percent, although against the Bruins it was 22.7, so there’s a chance the unit has turned it up a notched from the early days in Toronto. Tampa Bay has held steady on the penalty kill (81.3 percent in the postseason), but the club’s real special teams force is the power play. With Hedman on the point and Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov up front, opponents want to keep their time in the box to a minimum.

Compared to the regular season, the Islanders have stayed consistent on the power play, from 17.3 percent efficiency to 17.0 percent. Anders Lee leads with three power-play goals while Josh Bailey has collected six of his 17 points with the man advantage. The penalty kill has been solid at 82.2 percent, although that can be a little misleading because the Flyers went 0 for 13 in their series.

Edge: Lightning.

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Key players to watch  

Blake Coleman (TBL): Coleman brings intensity, hard work and big goals wherever he goes. He has seven points (three goals, four assists) through the team’s first 13 games — four in the last four games vs. the Bruins — and was on pace for a career regular season before the pandemic hit; he settled for 21 goals and 31 points in 57 games between the Devils and Lightning. He’s also a key shutdown forward and plays a full 200-foot game.

Josh Bailey (NYI):  The longest-tenured Islander surely won’t let this opportunity pass. Since the start of bubble hockey, he has potted two goals and registered a team-best 17 points. Those 15 assists are five shy of an Isles record and the most since Bob Bourne’s 20 in 1983. That year, by the way, was the last time the Islanders won the Stanley Cup.

In 35 career games against the Lightning, Bailey has 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists). He was the co-leader with captain Anders Lee with three points against Tampa Bay during the 2019-20 regular season.

Lightning vs. Islanders playoff history

Last five playoff appearances

Tampa Bay Lightning

New York Islanders

(2) Lightning vs. (6) Islanders prediction

This will be a coaching matchup for the ages and could really go either way, but . . .

Prediction: Lightning in six (and apologies, as always, to Jon Cooper for his placement on the “coaches to get axed by Thanksgiving” list when the team was 9-7-2 in mid-November).

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