Photo: Jim McIsaac/Newsday
On his Zoom presser, after the Islanders eliminated the Boston Bruins in six games on Wednesday night in a 6-2 victory at Nassau Coliseum, Islanders head coach Barry Trotz mentioned he, his staff and his players never talked about the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning when being asked about this playoff journey.
That may be true, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t thought about it. This is the same head coach that once said he would talk about the Islanders being eliminated by the Lightning on his deathbed. Several Islanders players mentioned how much it hurt being eliminated by them when training camp started. They had to be thinking what could have been in what was a brief offseason. How could they not after they took the Bolts to six games last year in the Eastern Conference Final just to be eliminated in overtime?
Face it. As fun as this playoff run has been, this Islanders season has been about eliminating the Lightning from the day training camp started. This playoff run won’t mean much unless the Islanders finish the job this time around. It isn’t just about going to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s about ending the Lightning’s run.
If not now, when?
The Islanders could have gone out and been loosey-goosey last season since no one expected them to go this far. Not even Trotz and his players expected this. This season is different. They received valuable experience from last year on what it takes to beat the Stanley Cup champs. They took their lumps. This time around, they are going to be well-rested just like their opponent after both teams showed a killer instinct in eliminating their divisional opponent when they were on the brink of elimination.
It’s only fitting the Islanders have to go through the Lightning for a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Final and climb to the top of the mountain by winning the big prize. It was meant to be. The Lightning are the best team of the tournament. To be the best, the Islanders have to beat the best. That’s the challenge awaiting them starting Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena.
It won’t be easy. It never is at this time of the year. It’s one thing to get through two rounds, but it gets harder once an NHL team reaches the Final Four. There are no secrets. Teams know strengths and weaknesses from watching video and film. Yes, both teams did not play each other this season. No matter. They have known each other since last year, and that should be enough.
I will say this. This team is more equipped to face the Lightning now than last season. It starts with the Islanders defensemen. They logged on so many minutes this postseason and they were effective. Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Noah Dobson, Scott Mayfield and Andy Greene are tough enough to handle the speed of the Lightning. It’s a challenge they will relish, especially Pelech, Pulock and Dobson who have come into their own.
The Lightning are not a one-line team like the Bruins. Like the Islanders, they feature four lines that can burn them with speed. The Islanders have had their issues with teams that have speed. Plus, the Lightning have Nikita Kucherov back, and the postseason is his time of the year as the Islanders found out last season. This postseason, he earned 18 points by scoring five goals and dishing out 13 assists.
It doesn’t matter that the Lightning circumvented the cap to get Kucherov on the postseason roster. The Islanders embrace him on the roster since it would be so sweet to beat them with him there. The Lightning should not have any excuses if they lose in this round.
This will be a fun matchup in the sense it will be the immovable object (Islanders stifling defense) going up against the unstoppable force (Lightning offense). If the Islanders beat the Lightning, it will be because they earned it. Think about this Lightning roster. It isn’t just Victor Hedman, Steve Stamkos and Kucherov. They boast of guys like Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palet, Brayden Point, Pat Maroon, Tyler Johnson, Barclay Goodrow, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde. The Islanders know full well what this Lightning team can do offensively.
Yet, the Islanders defense can be good enough to handle all of them.
We know the Islanders are going to score in this series. They got playoff warriors such as Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, Kyle Palmieri, Anthony Beauvillier, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Matt Martin. It’s going to come down to what the defense does here.
Semyon Varlamov played well enough last year against the Bolts, so the Islanders got someone they can trust in the nets. If he struggles, they can go back to starting Ilya Sorokin, who can be a difference-maker in this series.
By beating the Lightning, it enhances the Islanders run. It would validate all along that the Islanders can win the Stanley Cup. This is not a perfect roster like the Lightning. So what? All they have to do is find a way to win four games. This team is so well-coached and well-prepared in paying attention to the details and executing it. It can go a long way against the Lightning, which is why they have a shot.
The Islanders are not happy just to be in the Stanley Cup semifinals, and that’s a great thing. Enough of being happy just to be there. It’s about finishing the job. A chance to carve their own place in franchise history. A chance for the younger generation and fans from 30s to 50s to have a moment to remember after growing grew up watching bad hockey for so many decades.
The adventure begins this weekend. As hard as the first two playoff series were, nothing comes close to now.
The winner of this series likely wins the Cup.