With a Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin matchup pending in the other half of the Eastern Conference bracket, it’s easy to overlook the clash between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders. But the intrigue is certainly still there.
Tampa Bay will be making its third second-round appearance in six seasons, and despite not being the favorite in the East, the Lightning are still the defending Eastern Conference champions, having come within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup a year ago.
On the other side of the matchup, New York is back in the second round for the first time since 1993. It took three overtime victories, including two in double overtime, but the Islanders did finally break through and end their long postseason drought.
Here are three key x-factors that could make a difference in who will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals:
Scoring depth is a key for every series, but the team that produces the most scoring outside of its top line will have a huge advantage in this one. Neither team was able to do much of that in the first round.
John Tavares and his linemates, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, dominated against Florida, combining to score nine goals and 19 points. The nine goals accounted for 60 percent of New York’s offense in the first series.
Coach Jack Capuano moved Nielsen back to the second line for the final two games to try and jump start the second unit. Nielsen did score in Game 5, but the second-line forwards didn’t have an impact on the play, as the assist went to defenseman Thomas Hickey.
If Nielsen moves back to Tavares’ wing, Alan Quine could play a key role for New York on the bottom-six. He only played two regular season games but dressed for all six postseason contests. Quine had a goal, the game-winner during double overtime in Game 5, and two assists versus Florida. He played on Tavares’ wing in the final two games with Nielsen on the second line.
As top heavy as New York’s scoring was, Tampa Bay’s was worst. The Lightning top line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn scored 10 of the team’s 12 goals against Detroit.
Ondrej Palat and Brian Boyle were the only other Lightning players to score during the first round. Tampa Bay needs more from Palat, who had just one point and a minus-4 rating. The Lightning could also use more from Palat’s linemates on the second unit, Jonathan Drouin and Valtteri Filppula. Drouin had four assists but a minus-3 rating, and Filppula didn’t have a single point against the Red Wings.
Who Returns from Injury?
One way Tampa Bay could improve its secondary scoring is getting some of its stars back on the ice.
Tuesday was the first time Stamkos practiced since undergoing vascular surgery to fix a blood clot in his collarbone April 4. He told reporters he feels great, but there is no new timetable for him to return. His initial prognosis was he would miss 1-3 months.
The Lightning are also still waiting for defenseman Anton Stralman and right winger J.T. Brown to return. Neither will be ready for Game 1, but Stralman has a good chance to return at some point during the series.
Stralman fractured his fibula, ironically, against the Islanders, on Mar. 25. The Lightning did not announce a timetable for return, but normal recovery time for such an injury is 4-6 weeks. Friday will mark the fifth full week Stralman has been sidelined.
Tampa Bay isn’t as hopeful about Brown.
Brown blocked a shot in Game 2 against Detroit and left with an upper-body injury. Tampa Bay can’t really count on any of these players returning, but if they do, the might swing the series in its favor.
The Islanders are dealing with their fair share of injuries as well and have less time to recoup since they only finished off the Panthers on Sunday. Right winger Josh Bailey suffered an undisclosed injury in Game 6 and didn’t return. There isn’t any new information about Bailey, though, it might not be a huge deal if he misses Game 1. After a hugely disappointing regular season, Bailey had just one assist and a minus-4 rating during the first round.
New York’s bigger absence would be defenseman Ryan Pulock. He was a key reason the Islanders went 5-for-21 (23.8 percent) on the power play against Florida. Two of Pulock’s three points during the series came on the man advantage.
He isn’t expected to play in Games 1 and 2, but if Pulock can return for Game 3, he could be a major boost to the power play, which was so important to New York advancing to the second round.
It’s easy to say Tampa Bay has the goaltending advantage because Ben Bishop led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, and Greiss is a career backup, but people were saying the same thing about Greiss against playoff proven Roberto Luongo.
After a subpar Game 1 where Florida peppered Greiss with 46 shots, getting four passed him, the 30-year-old settled in and played spectacularly. Besides Tavares, Greiss was New York’s best player.
He posted a 0.944 save percentage and 1.79 GAA while allowing just two goals in the final 196:29 in the first round. Greiss will have to be magical again for New York to advance.