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Islanders vs. Lightning Series Preview & Predictions

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Islanders vs. Lightning Series Preview & Predictions
The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate. Elsa/Getty Images/AFP

We are now at the Eastern Conference Finals with one perennial contender and one dark horse. Since the 2014/15 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been in the cup conversation every single year. This was Kucherov’s breakout year where he jumped from 18 points to over 60 before eventually hitting the 100 point mark in back-to-back seasons. 

This was also the first season Stamkos would return to play a full season after two years plagued with injury. Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Palat, Killorn, Johnson – all young talents, between their second and third years at this time, and starting to get a footing into the league. Here are the Bolts results since the 2014/15 season:

Season Points Total/ResultCup Odds/Result
97.5/108+1400/Cup Finals
106.5/97+900/Conference Finals
105.5/94+1000/Missed Playoffs
102.5/113+1100/Conference Finals
106.5/128+900/First Round
1.32 needed/1.31 pace+700/??

This is about as steady and respectable of a performance one might expect of a contender in the NHL over a six year period. The only thing missing is the Cup ring. Here were some of my notes in their 2019/2020 preview:

Tampa brings back with them the deepest skill-based forward group of any team in the league. Looking over the list of their players you could almost add anyone of them to a fantasy league team; Point, Palat, Killorn, Johnson, Cirelli, Gourde oh and those two other guys…Stamkos and Kucherov? Last month they added cup-winner Pat Maroon to give their forward group a bit more size, probably the only thing you could say they lacked. Last year’s group had ten players with forty points, and three with forty goals. This forward lineup can have basically any line carry the offence on a given night.

 -What the forward group lacks for in size, the defensive group more than makes up. Shattenkirk and McDonagh, two experienced vets are the ‘small’ ones, at 6’0 and 6’1. Follow that up with Sergachev, 6’3, Cernak 6’4, Coburn 6’5. and Hedman 6’6 and you’ve got an intimidating core. While Hedman leads the way offensively for this group, several others are capable when needed…not that it really is. Behind these guys they still have additional depth in Rutta, Schenn, and Witkowski.

-Though Vasilevskiy had some truly poor numbers in their four games during the playoffs, he has been a consistent goalie during his entire career. Short of injury troubles, he will deliver. The backup is likely to be McElhinney, a very experienced and capable goalie. He is not someone who will be playing his best years in Tampa, nor likely to carry them if Vasi has a prolonged injury.

Short of Stamkos this team is completely healthy. The only position that would drop their value significantly would be an injury to Vasilevskiy and, to a lesser extent, Hedman. Additionally, they are fully rested after nearly sweeping both the Blue Jackets and Bruins and having a full week off between games.

Does one tweet summarise the Islanders better?

Yes, this one:

I am not from Toronto, nor have I lived there, so memes about their hockey team can almost always make me laugh. However the truth of it is when Trotz took over everything changed for the Islanders club. He is the single most important piece of that organization (yes that includes Barzal). There MIGHT be a handful of coaches who could have done what Trotz has for New York, while there are at least a few dozen players who could replace Barzal. It is a team game, and Barry is the one who showed the Islanders how to play as a team. Cliche much Adam? Well let’s look at some numbers.

Jack Capuano was the boss on the bench for six and a half seasons with the Isles, of which three were winning and two were superb, 14/15 and 15/16. Over that time they made the playoffs three times and had a singular series victory against the Panthers losing against the Penguins, Capitals and Lightning. All three opponents were undoubtedly in their prime.

Season Points Total/ResultCup Odds/Result
89.5/101+6600/First Round
99.5/100+2000/Second Round
94.5/94+2500/Missed Playoffs
88.5/80+4000/Missed Playoffs
82.5/103+20000/Second Round
1.11 needed/1.17 pace+3000/??

Capuano did surpass the expectations in 2015. However it does not compare to the full 21 points covered by Trotz in his first season with the Isles, nor the exceptional pace they were on for again this year on a total of only 91. It is a 5 win jump from 2019, however it would still put them on the outside looking in of the stacked Metropolitan division. So both seasons the Isles have gone above and beyond the market expectation.  

Long gone are the 70 and 80 point seasons of Tavares, Bailey, Lee, Okposo, and Barzal to be replaced by far more defensive structure. The Islanders went from allowing 32 goals more against than they scored in 2018, to a +32 in 2019. That is a disparity of 64 goals in one off-season in which they lost their biggest point producer and starting goalie AND added a new coach. What the F-! Those kind of results are not ‘lucky’ or based around the talent pool being undervalued, but rather underutilized. This is what earned Trotz his second Jack Adams award this decade.

Only two players finished with a negative plus/minus on the entire Islanders squad last season…c’est fantastique! 2020’s numbers were not as exceptional, though if it was easily repeatable then they would not be so exceptional in the first place. This could be down to Varlamov not being able to repeat what Lehner did, and Greiss also having a slightly worse season. It could also be down to depth defencemen Pelech having an increased workload when he was in, but still missing half the season.

Here were some of my notes entering this season:

-If there was ever a case-study for the potential of an entire team being on the same page to hit well above their weight, last year’s New York Islanders were it. Sure they have a good to potentially great talent in Barzal, but he was a 60pt guy last year, not an 80+ like the league’s elite. After back-to-back post season absences, the departure of Tavares was expected to add to the Isles woes immediately. However excellent coaching from Trotz, combined with the Isles goalie coach, led to a hugely impactful and committed team.

-That same core on offence and defence will be returning this year, with one key absence – Robin Lehner. In his place will be 10 year veteran, Semyon Varlamov, a goalie who has stapled the Avalanche backend for most of his career. In that time however he only really posted one illustrious season. For Isles fans to expect the post-season again this year, the two key coaches may have to work some magic to recreate Lehner’s resurgence back into the league.

-The Isles, like last year, are on the lesser side of the pack of teams who can contend for a playoff spot again, but probably shouldn’t if we were just going off roster potential. Last year saw them do much more with much less and I believe Trotz to be a mastermind with rosters like this – as he was in Nashville for many seasons. Additionally, the Isles were one of only four Eastern teams  [Bolts, Bruins, and Pens] to hold a winning record versus every division in the league last year and collected a point against every Eastern team.

Mathew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders. Elsa/Getty Images/AFP

Summary

As you can see, the coaching and defensive structure is the critical point that the Isles need to stay with. While they have a couple offensive weapons, that is not their strength. I backed them as a marginal underdog against the Flyers and was not impressed with their product given what that series could or should have looked like.

‘But Adam, you said Dallas is a defensive-minded team in comparison to the Golden Knights and they had a barnburner with the Avalanche throughout the series!’ Correct, however we are isolating a Golden Knights price that had never in three years been given to Vegas against the Stars, contrasted with a Bolts team that has been priced there almost every time with one exception.

Skimming over the odds in the last six meetings between the Bolts and Isles, Tampa has been shorter than their current moneyline in today’s game one in 5/6 of those, while winning three. To be completely honest, when I woke up today I thought I would be laying some money down on the Islanders. I even preemptively took them on Sunday in a playoff pool with some friends back home. That was before doing any homework and, after reviewing everything, their number is about 6% from where it should be as a true 70/30 match-up, or undoubtedly closer to that than the almost 40% it currently sits. This might not seem like a big deal but it is if you bet NHL series year after year.

In order for New York to beat the Lightning they need to go back a season, or at the very least do what the Jackets did…but better.

Series Bet:

Lightning -180
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