How the Lightning got here:
You can actually thank the Red Wings for that. Jeff Blashill’s squad came into the playoffs all jumbled up and in pieces, with question marks stretching from inconsistent goaltending to infrequent scoring, and even the spotty defense in between. Even with Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman out of the Lightning lineup, the Wings were still big underdogs. Yeah, there’s no fairy tale ending to what could potentially be Pavel Datsyuk’s last year in the NHL. The playoffs are cruel. Cold, even.
How the Islanders got here:
Two words: John Tavares. The Islanders captain was HUGE in the series-clinching game against Florida, stepping into the New York limelight as the Rangers fade. He led the team with nine points in six games, including five goals, and mauled the Panthers (nice new car shield logo, by the way!) in the circle, winning nearly 60 percent of his draws. Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen were the only forwards to average over 20 minutes a game, placing an extraordinary reliance on the team’s top line, but the additions of Alan Quine, who basically spent the entire season in the AHL, and Shane Prince, who cost them a third-round pick at the deadline, have added even more speed and skill to an already potent lineup.
The best player in the series is:
Tavares. Moving on.
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The best defenseman in the series is:
Victor Hedman, but the margin between him and Travis Hamonic or Nick Leddy isn’t that big. But, that still means Hedman will have to go head-to-head against Tavares’ line, a matchup that Jack Capuano may be okay with, or otherwise shy away and start thinking about ways to take advantage of last change for Games 3 and 4.
The best goalie in the series is:
Ben Bishop. Every single inch of him. The Islanders are going up against the best goalie in the Eastern Conference this season not named Braden Holtby.
Why the Islanders could upset:
Tavares, duh. He chewed up Florida’s centers and he could do it against the Lightning. His confidence must be at an all-time high, and they’re heading into this round with a lot of momentum. From the other side, this is where not having Stralman is going to really hurt the Lightning. Behind Hedman, they have a lumbering Jason Garrison, a shaky Matt Carle (who was considered their worst defenseman at one point), Braydon Coburn, Andrej Sustr and part-time power-play specialist Nikita Nesterov as the sixth guy, with ‘Two-Minute’ Matt Taormia as the extra. All signs kind of point toward an Islanders upset, and, sure enough, 52 percent of voters on Sportsnet.ca believe it’s going to happen.
The Islanders X-factor:
One of either Brock Nelson or Ryan Strome will have to really set up because Tavares can’t do it himself. Both are talented players, though Nelson is more in favor at the moment. They have to score some big goals and force Jon Cooper to make decisions on defensive matchups.
Why the Lightning will prevail:
First, the longer break in between rounds will likely help them, especially since Tyler Johnson kept making shuttle runs from the bench to the dressing room. Second, the reigning Eastern Conference champs know what’s coming. Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat were outstanding in last year’s semifinal, and Ryan Callahan is probably playing his best hockey all season. The Islanders are entering uncharted territory in the Tavares era, but the captain is still only 25 years young, on a team that is still putting the finishing touches on its rebuild. Another tough playoff loss could propel them forward in the future, however. Third, Bishop.
The Lightning’s X-factor:
Jonathan Drouin. The Lightning have to move forward under the impression that Stamkos won’t be back anytime soon, which means Drouin has to help pick up the slack like he did against Detroit – though, let’s be honest, the Red Wings weren’t exactly a tough challenge.
Heart says Islanders but gut says Lightning, and too often goaltending becomes a difference maker in a series. Lightning in 7.