TAMPA — The Lightning enter their Stanley Cup semifinal with the Islanders having not played them all season, but Tampa Bay is far from unfamiliar with its next opponent.
Because of this year’s regional realignment that had teams play their entire regular-season schedule and first two playoff rounds in their division, the Islanders will be the first team the Lightning face outside the Central Division.
But these teams saw each other nine months ago in the Eastern Conference Final, a series the Lightning won in six games en route to the Stanley Cup.
For the most part, the personnel is very much the same. Their systems are the same, the goaltenders are the same and the coaches have met in this round three of the past four seasons (Islanders coach Barry Trotz led the Capitals team that three seasons ago beat Tampa Bay in the conference final).
“Whether we played each other last week or last month or three months ago, it doesn’t really matter,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from us.”
Take away the Lightning’s 8-2 win in Game 1 and the rest of last year’s series — which was played in front of no fans inside the Edmonton bubble — was tightly contested. Four of the six games were decided by two goals or fewer — the Lightning won Game 4 by three only after a late empty-net goal — and the final two games went to overtime.
Both teams will take time breaking down film to get a fresh look at their opponent, but they know how much of a challenge emerging from this series will be.
“I think the one thing we just draw on, just starting to look at them as our opponent, is how hard fought that series was, how close that series was and how important every play is against this team,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge, and our group has been through those challenges before, but this is another step towards where we want to go and what we’re trying to do in accomplishing our goal.
“I just know how hard of a series it was last time and I’m expecting it to be even more of a challenge, especially going into an environment like their building and their crowd behind them and the pride that they play with.”
The Islanders — the last team out of the East Division to qualify for the postseason who beat the Penguins and Bruins to get here — are relishing the rematch. Islanders forward Brock Nelson said their loss to Tampa Bay was followed by “the hardest offseason we’ve been a part of because of how close we were to our goal.”
From the “We want Tampa” chant that permeated through Nassau Coliseum in the waning moments of the Islanders’ series-clinching Game 6 win over Boston, their fans also are looking forward to getting another shot at the Lightning.
“They’re a great team,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “They play with a lot of speed, got some physical D that can skate and good goaltending. When it comes down to four teams left, it’s the best of the best that are still here and you expect a tough matchup. We’re super excited to play a great team and we’re probably looking forward to playing another team too that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
After coming off a series against a Carolina team that pressures the puck relentlessly, the Islanders are also a defensive-minded group that will try to take away time and space from the Lightning’s skill players, but they’ll do so with a more physical brand than Tampa Bay saw with Carolina.
“When we’re at our best, we’re playing physical and we’re in your face, we’re getting pucks in and we’re trying to wear you down over the course of the game and capitalize on your mistakes,” Islanders forward Matt Martin said. “As much as the focus is to be physical with whoever we’re playing, it’s just kind of our identity as a group and where we’re the most successful. It starts on Sunday in setting a physical tone and being hard on them right from the get-go is going to be important.”
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