Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd seed, Atlantic Division) versus New York Islanders (first Eastern Conference wild card)
The Lightning reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2015 but fell short of the ultimate goal after losing to the Chicago Blackhawks. Playing in the second round is unfamiliar territory for the Islanders, who won their first playoff series since 1993. This will be an interesting series. Lighting coach Jon Cooper's group once again is playing inspired hockey despite plenty of adversity. Islanders coach Jack Capuano and the boys from Brooklyn are a gritty group and a dangerous team for the Lightning.
How they win
Tampa: While the Islanders' first-round series victory over the Florida Panthers ended with a double-overtime thriller in Game 6, the Lightning have been waiting, watching, resting and preparing after their first-round series win over the Detroit Red Wings concluded on April 22. The time off will serve Tampa well, as many of its top players are bruised and banged up. Because the Lightning reached the Cup finals last season, they know any extra time off this spring is welcomed. It also helps that Tampa is backstopped by goaltender Ben Bishop, who stopped 152 of 160 shots against the Red Wings. Bishop owns a 2.08 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage in 30 career playoff games. Tampa needs Bishop's best performances in order to advance to a second straight conference finals.
Like in most playoff series, special teams will be key for the Lightning. Tampa's penalty kill was 24-for-25 in the first round. On the power play, the Lightning went 4-for-23. The power play will be important because Tampa scored only eight even-strength goals against the Red Wings. Without captain Steven Stamkos, who remains sidelined after surgery to remove a blood clot in his shoulder, the once-exiled Jonathan Drouin played extremely well in the first round and will need to continue his strong play.
New York: The never-say-die Islanders earned three overtime victories in the first round against the Panthers. That determination and passion needs to continue against an opponent with more postseason experience. Islanders captain John Tavares was outstanding in the first round. The organization's all-time leader in regular-season overtime goals (eight) scored two against the Panthers. He'll need to continue to be the best player on the ice for the Islanders to beat the Lightning. He enters the series with five goals and four assists for nine points this postseason. In his past 12 games, dating back to March 31, he has 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points. Goaltender Thomas Greiss was solid in the first round. He combined for 88 saves in Games 5 and 6. If he can maintain that level of success, it will be an entertaining battle between Bishop and him.
How they lose
Tampa: Health could be a factor for the Lightning. The flu recently wreaked havoc in the locker room and a handful of players were sick during Game 5 against the Red Wings, but the time off has helped them get better. Already without Stamkos, Cooper is waiting to see if veteran defenseman Anton Stralman (broken leg) will be available at some point. The speedy Islanders could take advantage of Tampa's blue-line corps that won't have the solid defensive pairing of Stralman and Victor Hedman. It's also not known if forward J.T. Brown (upper body) will be available this series. Forward Tyler Johnson is banged-up too. Without Stamkos' production (37 goals during the regular season), the Lightning struggled offensively in the first round, scoring 12 goals against the Red Wings -- and Nikita Kucherov had five of them. Depth could become an issue for the Lightning.
New York: The Islanders' lack of postseason experience could be a factor. As unbelievable as he's been since starter Jaroslav Halak was injured, Greiss could be exposed against an offensively talented team like the Lightning (if Tampa produces). He made timely saves in the first round and was able to control his rebounds. If he allows those second chances, though, Tampa will pounce all over them.
Without Stralman in the defensive mix for the Lightning, Hedman, who should be among those considered for the Norris Trophy, averaged 27 minutes per game in the first round. His ice time should remain the same, or even increase, as the postseason progresses.
Tampa: Ben Bishop. Ben Bishop. Ben Bishop. Did we mention the importance of Ben Bishop? He was a major reason the Lightning reached the finals in 2015, and if they can advance past the second round, it will be on the shoulders of 29-year-old goaltender. He owns a 17-12 record in 30 career postseason games, including four shutouts.
New York: Tavares, 25, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, is showcasing his talent at the most important time of the season. He was outstanding in the first round and has been producing for the last month. In his past 12 games, dating back to March 31, he has 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points. He'll need more of that in the second round and beyond if the Islanders can get there.
The Islanders could be the Cinderella team that pulls off this upset. Not many thought they had a chance against the Panthers, but the Islanders played inspiring hockey en route to victory. Without Stamkos and Stralman, and based on the Lightning's emotional run to the finals last spring, Tampa could run out of gas in this series. Either way, it will be entertaining and will go the distance. When the final buzzer sounds in Game 7, it will be the Islanders that will advance to the Eastern Conference finals. Islanders in 7.