When you take away the series-opening blowout during the Eastern Conference final between the Islanders and Lightning last season, the score disparity was just two goals. And the Islanders played that opener just one day after getting on a plane to Edmonton following their Game 7 win over the Flyers.
Both teams have acknowledged just how tight that series was and expressed an immense mutual respect for one another heading into Game 1 of this year’s semifinal rematch, which begins Sunday at 3 p.m. in Tampa, Fla.
While the Lightning are trying to defend their Stanley Cup title, the Islanders once again are the underdogs — listed at 2/1, per BetMGM — even though they don’t see it that way.
“You guys pick your winners and decide who’s the underdog and whatnot,” Matt Martin said Friday. “We just believe we’re a good team. We expected to be here. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy against a really good Pittsburgh team and a really good Boston team. But coming into this season, we expected to be here.
“We’re proud and happy with what we’ve accomplished to this point, but jobs still not done and we have our sights set on going all the way.”
There are several factors for the Islanders to consider when measuring themselves against the Lightning: A top-tier power play, four well-balanced lines packed with scoring threats and a Vezina finalist goaltender, just to name a few.
Brayden Point? “He’s got all the tools,” Cal Clutterbuck said.
Nikita Kucherov? “His skill-set is off the charts,” head coach Barry Trotz said.
Steven Stamkos? “He’s been an elite player for a long time,” Josh Bailey said.
But the Islanders have high expectations for themselves and have proven that last season’s run to the conference final wasn’t a fluke. They made it clear at the start of this season that their goal was to surpass last year’s playoff run, not just get back to the same point.
“Expectations for every team each and every year is to be where we are today,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “It’s how you approach it throughout the year and the experience that our players had last year certainly puts that focus just in a little higher direction than it was the year before. So I think that I’m not surprised with [our] expectation and would be very disappointed if that expectation wasn’t there.”
Trotz pointed out that even though his Islanders didn’t face the Lightning during the regular season, Tampa Bay is the team they have played most recently outside of the East Division. While that will help with scouting, Trotz said, the fact most of the Islanders’ roster played in that 2020 series will be the most beneficial factor.
“I think they’re going to be a little bit different than they were last year, we’re going to be a little bit different than we were last year,” Trotz said. “Even though it’s not even a complete year since we played them. They’re going to be a little bit different, and we’ll find out when we get there. I like the fact that we’re at least starting on even ground. We’ll see where that takes us.”