When the NHL paused, the Lightning and Islanders were heading in the wrong direction. Now they’re in a race to four wins that will determine who plays for the Stanley Cup. Catch Game 1 tonight, starting at 8 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.
EDMONTON — When last the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning faced one another, Jean-Gabriel Pageau was still a member of the Ottawa Senators. And Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow had yet to be acquired to form two-thirds of Tampa’s matchup line.
That Feb. 8 game should bear little resemblance to what we see in this Eastern Conference Final as a result.
While the NHL has been finishing off the 2019-20 season since returning from its COVID-19 pause, what we’ve seen this summer is essentially a new year. Many of the 20 teams who’ve been sent home failed to reach their previous standards following a four-month break.
The Islanders, in particular, managed to raise their bar. Tampa is a stronger group than it was back on March 11 as well despite going through this playoff tournament without captain Steven Stamkos.
From the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the Stanley Cup Final, livestream every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free, on Sportsnet NOW.
“They were two teams that marginally changed their rosters,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said before Monday’s Game 1. “I think the Islanders as well as ourselves got healthy over the pause and it looks like they really took advantage of their training camp, and as did we. There’s probably two teams that have something to prove in probably different ways.
“Two teams that have bought in and I think two teams that deservedly are sitting where we are. As we’ve watched this go on, both teams have had to fight through adversities in so many different ways and found a way.
“And this is what you’re getting now.”
Cooper and his staff have had a week to prepare for the Conference Final after dispatching the Boston Bruins in five games. They watched the last game these teams played — a 3-1 Tampa win at Amalie Arena — but don’t expect it to have too much relevance now.
When the season was paused, these were two teams heading in the wrong direction.
The Islanders were on a 2-7-4 run at that point while Tampa had gone 3-6-1.
Barry Trotz believes a turning point for his group came with the way they approached the break. It started with weekly calls and ramped up as soon as they got back on the ice together. They had a plan and a healthy amount of focus.
“There was proper preparation on [the players’] side and proper preparation on my staff side,” said Trotz. “We just made sure that we were ready to go. … We’ve played some pretty good teams on the way to get here and if we want to go farther we’re going to have to go through some great teams.
“That’s our challenge now.”
The Lightning are in this position for the fourth time in six years, and Trotz coached against them in the Eastern Conference Final in 2018 on the way to taking the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup.
While all of Tampa’s key players remain the same, he believes the recent acquisitions down the lineup have helped create a new identity. Coleman and Goodrow were both trade deadline pickups and they’ve formed a damaging puck pursuit line with Yanni Gourde in these playoffs — producing 68 per cent of the expected goals at 5-on-5.
“They work. They work extremely hard and they hound pucks,” said Islanders forward Casey Cizikas. “That’s kind of what they’ve done all playoffs and they’ve been successful doing it. So we’ve just got to match that intensity.”
The Islanders have been building towards this for years.
They’ve watched Mathew Barzal blossom into a superstar while relying on incremental gains from a number of holdover players who embody a lunch-pail mentality. Pageau and veteran defenceman Andy Greene were added in February. In time, the Islanders have become a little more than the sum of their parts and were full value for the series victories over Florida, Washington and Philadelphia this summer.
“When you’re coaching [against] a Barry Trotz you have to be ready to be in the fight for the full 60 minutes,” said Cooper.
“The Game 1 is always an interesting game to me because you can do as much video, you can do as much homework and everything on a team, but until you actually get the feel for how lines are playing, how they match up against each other and watch the game from 10 feet from the ice instead of on a video camera it’s just completely different.
“And especially in this situation now … the personnel’s different and I think the mindset of the two teams is different.”
The first one to four wins gets to play for the Stanley Cup.