It’s riveting that the Islanders and Lightning get to square off in the Stanley Cup semifinals once again.
Because not only is it a rematch, but it’s essentially a do-over fans have been clamoring for after the 2020 conference finals were held in an isolated bubble in Edmonton inside of an empty arena due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The only thing you could hear in Rogers Place was the sound of pucks hitting sticks and players communicating on the ice. There were no thunderous applauses after goals, or jeers from opposing fans, just the sounds of a regular hockey game.
But these semifinals aren’t supposed to be just another routine hockey series. It was borderline morbid last season to watch two teams compete for a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals in front of just each other, a few league staffers and a handful of media members.
That’s what makes this upcoming Islanders-Lightning series so significant: It’s an encore that can be played under the proper circumstances.
“I think as we started having fans, the value of that, experiencing that, which we did miss out [on],” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said after Wednesday’s series-clinching win over the Bruins. “Tampa won a Cup with no fans. I mean, that could be their motivation. I know fans give us the energy to say, ‘Hey, this is fun. Let’s keep going and see how far we can take this.’
“Last year was a great experience. One that the players will remember forever because you were basically in a dorm for two months. We did some things that some players never gotten past really a round or two rounds and finding out it is a different sort of mentality that you have to have. They enjoyed the experience, even though it was grueling.
“I think this experience this year has been similar. But as we’ve started to have fans and having our lives go back to normal, through everybody getting vaccinated and all that, it’s given a lot more meaning for sure. It’s reinforcing that experience that we had last year, plus the fans now. It’s a great feeling.”
The Islanders and Lightning have not played each other since last Sept. 17, when Tampa Bay ended the Isles’ season with a 2-1 Game 6 overtime win. Of course, the Lightning ultimately hoisted the Cup at the conclusion of the bubble playoffs, defeating the Stars in six games.
Due to the realignment of the divisions this season to minimize travel amid the pandemic, this will be the first time these two teams meet this year. That brings its own set of challenges for both squads.
Through the first two rounds, the Lightning and Islanders each played teams they’d seen eight times during the regular season. It’s much easier to strategize when you’re so familiar with your opponents.
But one thing is for certain: This Lightning-Islanders series will be given its due spotlight.
“It’s a great opportunity for us seeing [the Lightning] again in the semifinals,” Anthony Beauvillier said. “To get back to the spot we were last year with some unfinished business, it’s a great opportunity for us and we’re really looking forward to it.”