Semi-Final Preview
Ariel Stull/Vendetta Sports Media

2021 NHL Semi-Final Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs New York Islanders

In an Eastern Conference Final turned Semi-Final, we have the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning facing off against the New York Islanders. It is the first time that the same two teams face off in consecutive third-round series since the Chicago Blackhawks and LA Kings did so in 2013 and 2014. This should be nothing short of an excellent series, as the offensively loaded Lightning once again do battle against the defensively stout and structured Islanders. I, for one, did not expect the Islanders to return to this point, but I will happily eat my words here. While Tampa Bay is arguably an even bigger favorite to claim this series than the Boston Bruins were in the second round, it is no longer a surprise that Barry Trotz and these Islanders are capable of quite the upset. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of this Stanley Cup semi-final.

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Offense: Tampa Bay

This won’t take long to go over. From lines 1-4, the Tampa Bay Lightning simply pack a punch. Names like Stephen Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and others make them dangerous, no matter how you look at it. Trotz will likely make a point to his players to stay out of the box, as the Islanders’ shaky penalty kill would likely get ripped to shreds by Tampa’s dominant power-play unit. One redeeming factor for the Islanders has been their middle-6, as the “Killer B” line of Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier gave the Bruins headaches all throughout their second-round series. Furthermore, JG Pageau has anchored an excellent third line, as trade deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri currently leads the team in goals scored during the postseason. The defending champs clearly outmatch the Islanders in firepower, but the underdogs do know how to turn it on at the right time. The Isles x-factor remains Mathew Barzal, as he is still their best and most talented player. If he emerges as the MVP of the semi-final, then Tampa Bay could be in some trouble.

Defense: Tampa Bay

Both star power and depth see the Lightning hold a considerable advantage in the defensive end. Norris Trophy Winner Victor Hedman is the key to a backline featuring the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Denis Savard, and others. They are all not afraid to get involved on the offensive end and make their opponents pay. As for the Isles, they have a number of quality defensemen who can get it done in their own zone. Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield have all shone throughout the playoffs with their ability to keep the offenses of both the Penguins and Bruins in check for large stretches. They might not be as offensively productive as Tampa Bay’s defense, but it is clear they benefit from a Barry Trotz system of structure and defensive prowess. There is no doubt they will be trying hard to shut down this legendary offense as much as possible during the semi-final.

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Goaltending: Tampa Bay

Semyon Varlamov came up huge for the Islanders this postseason, but he has not yet reached the heights of Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 2020 Vezina winner has once again proved why he is a top-2 goaltender in the world with another stellar postseason run. Many believed that the Carolina Hurricanes would give Tampa more of a run for their money, but that was not the case in part because of Vasi’s incredible play. He almost singlehandedly kept the Caroline offense out of it and has given his team the chance to win in every single game they play. Of course, it helps to have an offense capable of 5 goals a game in front of him, but the Lightning’s confidence and dominance are built from the backend, and there are very few net-minders that are quite as consistent and clutch as Tampa’s #88. Semyon Varlamov will hope to bring his clutch heroics into the semi-finals, as he was able to survive multiple barrages from the Boston Bruins and help his team advance.

Coaching: New York

One man’s loss is another man’s gain, as Barry Trotz’s move from Washington to Long Island has paid dividends for both sides, both good and bad. Everywhere he goes, success seems to follow. From Nashville to the nation’s capital to the Island, it is safe to say that the man Hockey Guy Trey affectionately calls The Hobbit is the best coach of the past 2 decades. Lightning Coach Jon Cooper does command incredible respect as well, but he was out partying at Hofstra while Trotz was building his Hall-of-Fame resume. He has taken an Isles roster which, with a lack of scoring prowess, is still a powerhouse due to his incredible defensive strategy. It is clear that every Islander has bought into his system, and the results show. Cooper, on the other hand, knows how to push the right buttons on this incredibly talented Tampa squad. They always turn it up a notch when it matters and will be looking to win another Stanley Cup, this time outside of the bubble.

Prediction: Lightning in 7

While some may not assume the Islanders will take more than 2 games off Tampa, this is a hungry team. They will look to use the electric crowd at Nassau Coliseum as fuel and motivation to put Lightning in a bottle. However, it simply seems like too much to ask. A team as stacked as the Lightning is at all 3 positions means the Islanders need to bring their A-game at every moment, which is not easy. Trotz will definitely have his fingerprints all over this series, but it is not terribly likely that the Islanders slay this dragon. However, they will certainly be a team to watch in the future, especially if they get their hands on some more offensive talent. This semi-final series will undoubtedly be one of the very best to watch in all of the 2021 playoffs. These Islanders are used to being doubted, so be ready for anything.

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