The Islanders haven’t advanced this far in the NHL playoffs since 1993. That’s something they’ll be able to appreciate in the future. At present, though, all their thoughts are on the Lightning.
The teams will open the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night at Rogers Place in Edmonton after the Islanders concluded their second-round series with a 4-0 win over the Flyers in Saturday’s Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. The Flyers had twice staved off elimination with overtime victories.
“It feels good, but I just don’t think it’s the time to really sit back and reflect,” right wing Josh Bailey said on Sunday before the team departed Toronto for the Edmonton bubble. “I think we want to keep looking ahead and moving forward. We’ve got a lot on our plate coming up here.”
The Lightning beat the Blue Jackets and Bruins, each time in five games, to advance to the conference finals for the fourth time in six years. They will be well-rested after eliminating the Bruins last Monday and arriving in Edmonton on Saturday.
“I think as we’ve gone along, the challenges have gotten greater,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz, whose Capitals ousted the Lightning in seven games in the 2018 conference finals en route to the Stanley Cup. “They’re good teams. The adversity becomes a little bit larger. But by going through adversity, it doesn’t seem as large.
“The Lightning have been off for a little bit, they’re fresh,” Trotz added. “They’re a little bit ahead of us, watching and scouting. We’ve been trying to do the same thing, but we were focusing on the moment, and that was the Flyers. That moment is gone, and now the focus is on the Lightning.”
The Islanders won two of three from the Lightning during the regular season — which was paused on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and not restarted until the postseason began on Aug. 1 — but the teams have not met since Feb. 8, when the Islanders lost at Tampa Bay, 3-1.
Still, not only are the teams and coaches familiar with each other, but the Lightning believe facing two similarly defensively-structured teams in the Blue Jackets and Bruins will help them in this series.
“The Islanders have been pretty renowned for their defensive structure and play,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But we’ve been pretty battle-tested ourselves, having to go against Columbus and Boston. It should be much of the same.”
“I think it’s going to help for sure,” Lightning center Yanni Gourde said. “We just can’t get frustrated. We’ve just got to keep to what we do right and do it all over again.”
The Islanders, too, are looking to replicate what they did well against the Flyers, when they became the first NHL team to win a series with four regulation wins despite losing three in overtime.
“I liked the fact that we were committed to a full 200-foot game,” Trotz said. “There wasn’t any cheat. When we did break down by good plays by the opposition, we sold out, we took away their opportunities. You don’t have that good team effort without good goaltending.”
Trotz, of course, did not tip his hand as to whether he again will start Thomas Greiss, who had 16 saves on Saturday for his first career NHL playoff shutout, or go back to Semyon Varlamov, who started 14 of the Islanders’ first 15 postseason games.
The team has shown confidence in both.
Just as they’ve shown confidence in themselves.
“Edmonton was the goal,” Bailey said. “To this point, we’ve done what we wanted. It’s only going to get harder from here.”
VS. TAMPA BAY
All games at Rogers Place, Edmonton
Game 1: Monday 8 p.m., NBCSN
Game 2: Wednesday, 8 p.m., NBCSN
Friday, 8 p.m., USA
Game 4: Sunday 3 p.m., Ch. 4
Game 5: Tuesday, Sept. 15, 8 p.m., NBCSN, if necessary
Game 6: Thursday, Sept. 17, 8 p.m., NBCSN, if necessary
Game 7: Saturday, Sept.
19, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 4, if necessary