As the NHL gets set to kick off the second round of playoff action, the two teams who were almost certainly picked to lose their first-round matchup will get the chance to do battle for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
While this might not be the most entertaining matchup to watch in the second round, it will certainly be the closest and most hotly-contested series of the bunch.
The New York Islanders got into the playoffs by compiling a 45-27-10 record, which was good enough for 100 points and the first wild-card spot. Waiting for them in the first round was the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers. Many pundits and talking heads predicted the young, more well-rounded Panthers team would take the series. However, thanks to some timely saves and some clutch performances from captain John Tavares, the Islanders ended the series on home ice in six games after winning their second consecutive double-overtime game.
Waiting for them in the second round are the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning dispatched of the Detroit Red Wings in Round 1 despite playing without their captain, Steven Stamkos, who is out for the year with a blood clot. The Lightning made quick work of the Red Wings, outscoring them 12-8 and taking the series in five games. For the regular season, the Lightning finished 46-31-5, which was good enough for 97 points and second in the Atlantic Division.
As of this writing, Bovada favors the Lightning at -150 to win the series. The Lightning also check in at +550 to win the Eastern Conference and +1000 to win the Stanley Cup. Should you like the Islanders chances in this series, you can play them at +130 for the series, +750 to win the East and +1400 to take top honors this season.
But before you make up your mind, let me help you understand who should have the edge in terms of goaltending, offensive production, defensive resilience and everyone's favorite category - special teams.
Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss entered the playoffs with 108 career starts in the NHL since 2007, with 38 of those starts coming this year. Predominantly a career backup, Greiss backstopped the Islanders to a first-round win against the Florida Panthers. He was sensational, to say the very least. He posted a 1.79 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. Watching him throughout the series, I can say with 100 percent confidence he didn't allow a single bad goal. (I'm looking at you, Steve Mason). In the last three games he gave up a total of four goals and stopped a combined 115 out of 119 shots directed his way. His series-clinching performance was a peach, stopping 41 shots in a dramatic double-OT game. To say he is a hot goalie right now would be putting it lightly. He could steal the series.
Lightning goalie Ben Bishop was solid this season, backstopping the Bolts courtesy a Vezina-caliber season. He went 35-21-4 with a 2.06 GAA and a .926 save percentage in the regular season. In the postseason, when it matters most, Bishop was dominant and shut the door on a talented Red Wings squad. His all-around stats were solid - 1.61 GAA, .950 save percentage, one shutout and did not allow more than two goals in any of the five games. Had Tampa prevailed last season as Cup champs, Bishop could have made a solid case for capturing the Conn Smythe as the playoffs MVP. Bishop has 30 NHL playoff games under his belt and has been solid throughout. It's that type of experience that could be the difference maker in a tight series.
Edge: Tampa Bay
After slowing down the Panthers, the Islanders should be able to contain a less-talented Tampa Bay squad. There is no way New York is going to keep Tampa's top line off the board. However, if they can replicate their performance versus the Jagr line against Tampa's big trio, one would have to like the Islanders' chances in this series. The defensive pairing likely to get the shutdown task will be Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan.
On the season, the Islanders as a team allowed 2.57 goals per game, which was ranked them 13th in the league. The back-end does have some solid players, but it will need to play above their collective heads in order to ensure a second-round win.
The Lightning, on the other hand, come into this series hoping for the return of one of their defensive stars in Anton Stralman. Stralman has been out for a while now with a fractured fibula but has taken steps in the right direction in terms of returning. That would be an even bigger boost to a squad who has already displayed rock-solid defense.
On the season, the Lightning have allowed 2.41 goals against per game, which was good enough for the fifth-best defensive record in the NHL. While it may not be a whose-who of NHL defensemen, the sum of this defensive corps is far greater than the individual parts. For that reason alone, the edge goes to Tampa.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Besides Greiss, many would say Islanders captain John Tavares single handily carried his team to victory in the opening round series. He tallied five goals and four helpers. His biggest contributions were in Game 6, where he scored the tying goal with just under a minute left to play in regulation and then proceeded to score the series clinching goal in double-OT. That's the good news.
The bad news is, aside from Tavares, only one other player scored more than one goal against Florida. That was line-mate Frans Nielson. What does that mean? Only time will tell, but from the surface depth appears to be an issue.
Aside from the Tavares line, and despite getting a key game-winning goal from rookie Alan Quine in Game 5, this team owns the worst remaining Corsi For record (45.4) in the playoffs.
Over in the other dressing room, the Lightning's No. 1 line featuring Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn produced 10 goals in five games against the Red Wings.
However, similar to the Isles, the rest of the Bolts lineup produced a measly two additional goals, which makes this series all the more intriguing.
Which team will benefit from secondary scoring and which team can create the dirty/greasy goals? It's anyone's guess, really, but I am going to give the edge to the Lightning because a trio should be harder to contain than a one-man wrecking crew.
Edge: Tampa Bay
A big reason why the Islanders are in the second round is their special teams play. Five of their 15 goals came via the man advantage.
Defensively, the penalty kill, which has been great all season long (fourth overall) killed 13 of 15 power play opportunities against Florida. They will need to be at their very best again to stand a chance.
One thing that bodes well for them is that they are the more disciplined team than the Lightning, which means special teams could play a big factor once again.
However, the Lightning killed off 24 of 25 power play opportunities, which was good for 96 percent.
Edge: New York
This series will probably finish last amongst the other three series in terms of ratings and watchability, but this is what playoff hockey is about. Defensive-minded teams that love to keep the puck out of their net and scrape by with a one-goal win. I would suggest watching any other series, even soccer if you want to see goals.
However, if you want to make money, I would jump on the -150 price right now and back the Lightning to get the job done. The line is sure to go up by puck drop for Game 1.
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