The calendar flipped to September and it’s time to gear up for
preseason hockey— I mean the Conference Finals!
Yes, for the first time in recorded history, the National Hockey League is hosting both the Western Conference Final and the Eastern Conference Final in one hub city as Edmonton, Alberta plays host to the third round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as well as the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, but we’ll get there in a moment.
First, there’s a little leftover business to take care of and that’s figuring out which of the two Eastern Conference finalists will emerge victorious at Rogers Place and remain in the bubble to contend for what every NHL player dreams of– raising Lord Stanley’s mug high over their shoulders and going for a skate.
Though they were at first excluded from the bubble, some family members will be allowed to partake in the Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final festivities as long as they are Canadian citizens that are currently in Canada, but they have to self-isolate at home for seven days and produce three negative COVID-19 tests before traveling.
Then, of course, they’ll have to remain in quarantine in a separate hotel room in the bubble and produce four more negative tests before they can interact with the players.
The NHL is still waiting for clearance from the Canadian government, as well as the provincial government in Alberta, with regards to allowing citizens from outside of Canada into the Edmonton bubble and remains in ongoing discussions with the NHLPA, as well as the respective governments to work on a plan.
ESPN‘s, Emily Kaplan, goes into great detail to explain the precautions, plans and policies the entities are creating, working through and dealing with in the face of the pandemic with regards to allowing families into the bubble.
And no, none of the family members and/or romantic partners of any the players are a distraction.
If anything, they are a welcome sense of normalcy while the four remaining teams, staff and workers in the bubble have been isolated from the outside world for the last six weeks.
For now, let’s get back to breaking down the 2020 Eastern Conference Final and trying to predict a winner in some number of games.
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, 92 points) vs (6) New York Islanders (35-23-10, 80 points)
Tampa: 70 games played, .657 points percentage, 35 regulation wins.
N.Y. Islanders: 68 games played, .588 points percentage, 24 regulation wins.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been Stanley Cup contenders for the last six or seven seasons, but have yet to capture their first Cup since 2004.
This year, as the Lightning make their sixth appearance in the Eastern Conference Final in franchise history, Tampa is poised for their best chance at winning the Cup despite not having the services of their captain, Steven Stamkos, since mid-March.
After avenging their 2019 First Round exit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in four games, the Bolts beat the Blue Jackets in five games in 2020. Then they had a repeat of their 2018 Second Round matchup with the Boston Bruins and ousted the 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winning team in five games– just like they did two years ago.
Now the Lightning are set to face the New York Islanders and their head coach, Barry Trotz, the one man with a masterplan that beat the Bolts in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final while he was then the head coach of the Washington Capitals.
Nikita Kucherov led Tampa in regular season scoring with 33-52–85 totals in 68 games played, while Stamkos amassed 66 points in 57 games and Brayden Point had 64 points in 66 games.
Kucherov and Point continue to lead the way for the Lightning, while trade deadline acquisitions, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow have brought Tampa’s game to another dimension.
Point leads the Lightning in postseason scoring with 6-12–18 totals in 13 games, while Kucherov is second on the roster with 16 points in 13 games.
On the blue line, Victor Hedman is tied with glue-guy, Ondrej Palat, for the third most points on the team in the 2020 postseason as each player has five goals and four assists (nine points) in 13 games.
Palat tied a franchise record with Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis for the most consecutive postseason games with at least one goal (four games), while Hedman had the game-winning, series-clinching goal in double overtime against Boston in Game 5 of their Second Round series.
In the crease, Andrei Vasilevksiy earned Vezina Trophy finalist honors for the 2019-20 season after amassing a 35-14-3 record in 52 games (52 starts) with a 2.56 goals against average, a .917 save percentage and three shutouts in that span.
Tampa’s backup, Curtis McElhinney, produced an 8-7-3 record in 18 appearances with a 2.89 GAA, a .906 SV% and one shutout this season.
In the playoffs, Vasilevskiy has been the only goaltender to appear in game action for the Lightning, yielding a 10-3 record in 13 games with a 1.91 GAA and a .931 SV% in that span.
For the first time since 1993, the New York Islanders are in the Eastern Conference Final. 27 years ago the Isles lost to the eventual 1993 Stanley Cup champion, Montreal Canadiens in five games, and no Canadian team has won the Cup since.
That trend will continue– even though the Cup will be awarded in Canada this year for the first time since 2011– as all four teams remaining in the Edmonton bubble are based in the United States.
New York finished off the Florida Panthers in four games in their best-of-five game Qualifier, then took care of the Washington Capitals in five games in the First Round before overcoming the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games in the Second Round to make this year’s Eastern Conference Final.
Mathew Barzal led the Islanders in the regular season with 19-41–60 totals in 68 games, while Brock Nelson (54 points in 68 games) had the second-most for New York in 2019-20.
Anders Lee (43 points in 68 games) and Josh Bailey (14-29–43 totals in 68 games) were tied for the third most points on the roster prior to the pandemic shortening the regular season.
Entering the Eastern Conference Final, Bailey leads the Islanders with 2-15–17 totals in 16 games, while Nelson has 15 points in 16 postseason games and Barzal has 13 points in 16 playoff games for the Islanders this postseason.
Anthony Beauvillier leads in goal-scoring for New York in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs with eight goals in 16 games as the Islanders play a more “defense first” mindset– shutting down and trapping star players from opposing teams to will the game the way of the Trotz’s plan.
Semyon Varlamov went 19-14-6 in 45 games (39 starts) in the regular season, amassing a 2.62 GAA, a .914 SV% and two shutouts in the process in the regular season, while Thomas Greiss went 16-9-4 in 31 games (29 starts) and had a 2.74 GAA, as well as a .913 SV% prior to the stoppage.
In the postseason, Varlamov has gotten more starts with a 9-4 record in 14 games and has a 2.00 GAA, a .921 SV% and two shutouts in the process, but Greiss earned the Game 7 win against Philadelphia and is 2-1 in three games (two starts) with a 1.08 GAA, a .960 SV% and one shutout in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Should Greiss get more action in the Eastern Conference Final?
It remains a possibility as Trotz hasn’t given any indication as to who he’s starting in Game 1.
New York went 2-1-0 against the Lightning this season, while Tampa was 1-2-0 against the Islanders in the regular season.
The Isles had 11 goals for in the season series and six goals against, despite the Bolts holding the combined shots on goal advantage, 97-68.
Greiss and Varlamov each had a win against the Lightning, while the Bolts opted to start McElhinney in their second matchup of the season, which resulted in a, 5-1, win for the Islanders on Dec. 9th at Amalie Arena.
It’s a good thing for the Lightning that Vasilevskiy likely won’t be getting chased anytime soon– unless the Islanders somehow muster enough courage to score more than enough goals to not have to fallback on “prevent defense”.
Nonetheless, Tampa is hot and when you’re hot, you’re… hot. Duh.
But if there’s one thing we learned about these playoffs, it’s that being hot doesn’t mean anything to the Islanders– they beat the Flyers after all, and Philly had the best stretch from February until the pause, then won the first seed in the East honors via the Round Robin tournament.
The Lightning are beatable, but they’re not easy.
It’ll be a long and grueling battle– a series that likely plays one way in one game and completely the opposite in the next.
Tampa is well rested, while New York just eliminated Philadelphia on Saturday.
The Bolts are also 2-0 all time against the Isles in postseason series matchups– winning in five games in the 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, as well as in five games in the 2016 Second Round.
The third time’s a charm, though, and the Islanders should pull off yet another upset in seven games and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1984.
Regular season outcomes:
5-2 NYI at NYCB Live/Nassau Coliseum on Nov. 1st, 5-1 NYI at Amalie Arena on Dec. 9th, 3-1 TBL at Amalie Arena on Feb. 8th
9/7- Game 1 NYI @ TBL in Edmonton 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS
9/9- Game 2 NYI @ TBL in Edmonton 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, TVAS
9/11- Game 3 TBL @ NYI in Edmonton 8 PM ET on USA, CBC, SN, TVAS
9/13- Game 4 TBL @ NYI in Edmonton 8 PM ET on NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS
9/15- Game 5 NYI @ TBL in Edmonton 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS*
9/17- Game 6 TBL @ NYI in Edmonton 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS*
9/19- Game 7 NYI @ TBL in Edmonton 7:30 PM ET on NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS*