NHL Playoff Picks - Lightning vs. Islanders Prediction
The NHL Semifinals begin on Sunday with a rematch of the semi-finals from last season. The New York Islanders head to Tampa Bay for game one against the defending champion Lightning. It’s been less than 9 months since the Lightning defeated the Islanders in the conference finals during the NHL’s bubble postseason tournament in September of 2020. Tampa Bay discarded the Isles in six games before beating the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final.
What has changed since then? Not too much. Tampa Bay has a healthy Steven Stamkos while the Isles have replaced their injured captain Anders Lee with Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac. The Islanders had a slightly better regular season than they did in 2020 while the Lightning weren’t as dominant, though they dealt with injuries.
Despite being two of the last four teams standing, neither team has been all too impressive at 5-on-5. The Islanders are playing to just a 43.98% expected goal rate while the Lightning have been a little better with a 48.75% mark. It’s a far cry from the regular season, where both teams were over 52%. However, both teams have overperformed their metrics for a myriad of reasons.
Goaltending is a strong suit for both teams. We know all about Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Lightning. Tampa Bay’s netminder was nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the fourth straight season. He currently leads all goalies with a +12.9 goals saved above expectation in these playoffs while stopping 93.4% of the shots he’s faced. He’s arguably the best goalie in hockey.
For the Isles, it’s been a tale of two goaltenders as Ilya Sorokin was the story in round one against the Pittsburgh Penguins before turning over the crease to Semyon Varlamov in round two against the Bruins. Both have been very solid, but expect Varlamov to start for New York. He was splendid for the Isles against the Lightning last season, stopping 156 of 167 shots in the five games he started. He also had a great regular season this year, leading the league in save percentage amongst goalies who started at least 30 games.
On paper, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a huge edge in this series offensively. With Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point amongst others, they have elite talent that can change games. Their powerplay is one of the main reasons for their success, scoring on nearly 42% of their opportunities in the first two rounds. The health of Stamkos and Kucherov has been pivotal to that success. New York needs to stay out of the penalty box, which they usually do. They were a top five team in terms of discipline during the regular season; they don’t call them the New York Saints for nothing.
New York might not have the high-end talent the Lightning do, but they have four lines that they can roll effectively. All four lines have won them games in this postseason, whether it’s from first liner Mat Barzal in game four against Boston or fourth liner Casey Cizikas in game two of that series. In that respect, they’re a dangerous bunch as there are no shifts off for the other team's defensive unit.
Unfortunately for the Isles, they might have gotten a little fortunate to this point in the playoffs. They are scoring on 21.5% of their high danger chances which is fairly unsustainable. Their shooting percentage also is the highest of any team in these playoffs. In round one, Tristan Jarry was brutal for Pittsburgh. In round two, Tuukka Rask was playing through a torn labrum. The Isles took advantage of those goalies, but I’m not sure they’ll have similar luck against Vasilevskiy.
One final note is that even though these teams just played each other in September of 2020, they haven’t seen each other since. In fact, this is the first NHL game of this season that will see non-divisional rivals face-off. The regular season schedule was purely divisional, as were the first two rounds of the playoffs. These teams haven’t seen each other in nearly a year, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow start to the series as they feel each other out and re-learn the tendencies of their opponent.
The Lightning are huge favorites in this game and the series, and that’s nothing new for the Islanders. The Isles are underdogs in almost every series they play, but here they are in the Final Four for the second consecutive season. If you’ve been laying juice against the Isles, your bankroll is probably depleted. I do think once again the Isles aren’t getting enough respect here, but they aren’t my favorite play in this spot.
With both goaltenders playing well, the Islanders’ ability to defend and stay out of the penalty box and the expected downward regression of their conversion rates, I think we see a low scoring game here in the opener. The unfamiliarity between these two teams could also lead to a slower pace as they try and figure out what’s going to work.
Lightning vs. Islanders Picks
Bet: Under 5.5 Goals @ -143