The New York Islanders believe they have unfinished business to take care of when they open the Stanley Cup Semifinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning with Game 1 of the best-of-7 series at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
This is the second straight season the Islanders and Lightning will face off with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final at stake. Tampa Bay defeated New York in six games in the Eastern Conference Final last season before going on to win the Stanley Cup.
But for the Islanders, this series isn’t as much about avenging that loss to the Lightning as it is about taking the next step toward their goal of winning the Cup.
“We’re only halfway there,” Islanders forward Josh Bailey said Friday. “It wasn’t about Tampa Bay specifically. They’re a team we have to go up against right now.”
Maybe the Islanders surprised some by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the MassMutual East Division to advance to this rematch with the Lightning, the No. 3 seed in the Discover Central Division. But they say they always believed they’d return to the penultimate round of the postseason.
“Coming into this season, we expected to be back here,” Islanders forward Matt Martin said. “It doesn’t always work out that way, because there’s a lot of good teams in this league. But as much as everyone has made us underdogs and thought maybe last year was fluky, in our minds we always thought from the beginning that we’re going to have another shot at this. And now, with four teams left, our jobs is to go out there and finish the job.”
The Islanders know that won’t be easy. Although the Islanders and Lightning didn’t face each other during the regular season with no games outside the divisions to limit travel during the coronavirus pandemic, they know each other well.
New York has 19 players remaining and Tampa Bay has 18 back who played at least one game in the conference final.
“A lot of similarities on their end and the same with us,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “They’re a great team, play with a lot of speed, got some physical ‘D’ that can skate and good goaltending. When it comes down to four teams left, it’s the best of the best that are still here. Expect a tough matchup but we’re super excited to play a great team and we’re probably looking forward to playing another team too that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
This will be the third time in four seasons Islanders coach Barry Trotz and Lightning coach Jon Cooper will square off with a chance at the Stanley Cup Final. Trotz and the Washington Capitals defeated Cooper and the Lightning in seven games in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final and went on to win the Stanley Cup before Cooper and the Lightning prevailed against Trotz and the Islanders last season.
“So two teams that know each other, whether we played each other last week or last month or three months ago,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t really matter. We know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from us.”
Although the Islanders are focused on the present, there are lessons to be learned and reasons for confidence to be taken from their series against the Lightning last season. New York got off to a rough start, losing 8-2 in Game 1 at the hub in Edmonton two days after a 4-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at the Toronto hub.
That won’t be an issue this series. The Lightning closed out the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday and the Islanders eliminated the Bruins on Wednesday, so both teams should be rested and ready.
“It was a tough first game for us,” Trotz said. “Just all the elements of getting cross country and all that and didn’t give us much of a chance. But what I did know is that as the series went on, we were getting better and we were getting more dangerous and we were doing all the things that we said we were going to do. We just ran out of runway, in my opinion, in some ways.”
Even after Tampa Bay won 2-1 in Game 2, when Nikita Kucherov scored the winning goal with 8.8 seconds remaining, to take a 2-0 series lead, New York pushed back and had a chance in overtime of Game 6 to force Game 7. But Brock Nelson was stopped by Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on a shorthanded breakaway before Anthony Cirelli scored at 13:18 for a 2-1 victory that ended the Islanders’ Stanley Cup hopes.
After a long offseason, 56 regular-season games and two rounds of the playoffs, the Islanders will get another shot.
“I think we’re excited for the challenge,” Martin said. “Obviously, it was a hard-fought series last year and came up short and I’d say the feeling amongst the team is it was the hardest offseason that we were a part of, just how close we were to accomplishing our goals. So we’re excited to have another opportunity at them. You know how good of a team there are, defending champs and to get where you want to go, you’ve got to go through them.”
NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen contributed to this report