New on Sports Illustrated: Well-rested Lightning brace for upstart Isles in Game 1

September 07, 2020 at 04:21AM

The Tampa Bay Lightning advancing to the Eastern Conference finals is no surprise. The Lightning were one of the best teams in the league this season, and have been for many years.

This marks the fourth time in six seasons that they've reached the conference finals, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.

It's another story for the New York Islanders, who will face the Lightning in Game 1 on Monday in Edmonton.

The Islanders are in the NHL's final four for the first time since 1993, and as excited as they are about getting this far, there is still more work to do.

"I think you recognize and understand that you took another step. There's a bit of a celebration, but we understand that we're half way," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. "We've won three playoff rounds (counting the qualifying round) and we're going to play a very good Tampa team here. They're focused and deep and we're going to have to come up with a way to try and get by them. I think our guys are up for the challenge. Our team has grown."

Tampa Bay has won both previous playoff meetings, the latest in 2016 in which they claimed a second-round series in five games. The Islanders, however, won two of the three clashes during the regular season.

Certainly, this series will be a contrast in styles. The Islanders rely on team defense and look to create offense via the counterpunch. The Lightning, who are also one of the best defensive clubs in the league, seem to apply the theory that the best defense is a great offense.

That said, the Islanders scored at least three goals in every contest during their seven-game series with the Flyers. They have averaged 3.38 goals per game since play resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic paused the league in March.

"We've had a pretty balanced scoresheet up and down our roster, contributions from the defense (on Saturday), every line getting in on it," Islanders forward Brock Nelson said. "Guys stepping up and making plays at the right time. We're doing good things to create some chances and capitalize on them. I think we've had that strategy and results for a couple of series now and that's part of the reason we're here today."

Both teams have moved from the Toronto hub to Edmonton for this round, and the fatigue factor may come into play for an Islanders' club that clinched its series on Saturday. The Lightning have been idle since last Monday after eliminating the Boston Bruins in five games.

"In practice, by imitating game-like situations, is the only way you can kind of stay ready," Tampa Bay forward Alex Killorn said. "You want to make sure in these days you get your rest just because that's definitely an advantage over teams that are playing. But you also don't want to lose that edge going forward, that edge that you had when you were playing every other day."

Tampa Bay does have a couple of impact players with injury issues going into the series.

Captain Steven Stamkos (lower body), who last played in February, has been ruled out of the series, head coach Jon Cooper said Sunday.

Reigning Hart Trophy recipient Nikita Kucherov sustained an undisclosed injury in the Lightning's series-clinching win against Boston. Kucherov, however, has been practicing in the interim and is expected to be available.

--Field Level Media

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