NHL Playoffs Semifinals Preview: Top Picks for Lightning vs. Islanders (2021)

For the second consecutive year, the Islanders and Lightning will meet for the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Both teams had to endure a gauntlet of a division to make it this far, and both know they’re halfway to hoisting the Cup.

The bitter taste of defeat is still lingering on Long Island; this team is seeking revenge. As for Tampa Bay, they’re looking for a repeat of last year’s outcome. But, more importantly, they know they’ve got to replicate how they opened last year’s Eastern Conference Final. Perhaps not with another 8-2 shellacking, but with a statement win in the series’ opening game.

Anthony Cirelli sent the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final with an overtime goal in Game Six last year. Which of these teams will move on this year? Let’s find out.

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Tampa Bay Lightning

The defending Stanley Cup Champions are essentially the same wagon they were last year. The only two regulars who weren’t part of last year’s team in some form or fashion are Ross Colton – who was still in Tampa’s minor league system – and David Savard, who was acquired at the trade deadline. This team not only knows how to win, but they know how to win together.

Tampa Bay’s depth is incredible. They’ve done a great job all year of keeping their lines structured and intact. It’s obvious to even the most casual viewer just how much chemistry each of the Lightning’s four lines have with one another. But, as dangerous as this team is in the scoring department, they rely heavily on their goaltender, and he may be the best in the business.

Andrei Vasilevskiy can shut out any team on any night, and he seems to step up when Tampa Bay needs it most. The Lightning have won six series in a row – four in 2020 and two in 2021. Vasilevskiy has a preposterous .964 save percentage and a hard-to-believe 1.02 goals-against average in the six deciding games. Plus, he’s recorded a shutout in the last three of those games, the first of which won his team the Cup. Utter dominance. 

Andrei Vasilevskiy (29 saves) became the first goaltender in NHL history with a clinching shutout in three consecutive series (also Game 6 of 2020 SCF & Game 6 of 2021 R1). #StanleyCup#NHLStats: https://t.co/BETohp9zvi pic.twitter.com/uQw4JtxLpH

— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) June 9, 2021

Big number 88 has also saved 12.9 goals above average this playoff, easily tops in the playoffs among goalies. To put that into perspective, Marc-Andre Fleury ranks fourth with 4.2 GSAA. Vasilevskiy also leads all playoff netminders in high-danger save percentage, recording an eye-popping .921 HDSV% in 11 games. 

I touched on Tampa Bay’s offensive prowess earlier. They’re deep, but their big guns are bonafide stars in this league, and all three of them come to play in the playoffs. Per HockeyStatCards, Tampa Bay’s three highest-graded players this playoff are Nikita Kucherov (1.36 average GameScore), Steven Stamkos (1.12), and Brayden Point (1.10). For context, the next highest-graded player is Alex Killorn – a playoff assassin in his own right – at 1.03, but nobody else has earned an average GameScore above 0.67. This team relies on these three to drive offense, and they’ve done just that, combining for a ridiculous 18 goals and 25 assists in Tampa’s 11 playoff games.

Fun fact: since Nikita Kucherov entered the league in 2013-14, he has 112 points in 100 playoff games.

That is 1st in the NHL. Sidney Crosby is 2nd, with 86.

Kucherov has 26 more points in the playoffs than anyone else since he was called up to Tampa. 26 (!!) more. Insane. pic.twitter.com/Xye7coEITr

— Andrew Weiss (@WeissHockeyTalk) June 7, 2021

Much of the trio’s success has come on the powerplay, which has been humming all year long, especially in the postseason. They’re converting at an astounding 41.7% clip on the man-advantage. After struggling on the penalty kill in round one against Florida, Tampa Bay locked down the Hurricanes’ powerplay in round two to the tune of just two goals in 14 opportunities.

When leading after two periods, Tampa is 44-1-0 since the start of the 2020 playoffs. However, the Lightning are playing like they’re not ready to give up the Stanley Cup just yet, and they’ll be a tall task for the veteran Islanders bunch yet again in 2021.

New York Islanders

Nobody’s given the Islanders a chance all year long, so why start now? New York is a heavy underdog in this series again (+205) after closing at +125 to beat Pittsburgh in round one and reaching as high as +185 to eliminate Boston in round two. Islanders bettors have turned $200 into over $500, but can they win a third straight series as a ‘dog?

What the Islanders do to teams doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. It barely shows up on the scoreboard. And it certainly doesn’t show up in the underlying metrics. New York has been labeled “boring” ever since Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz got to town three years ago, but all this team has done since then is win hockey games. They’re in their second consecutive semifinal and have won at least one playoff series every year during the current regime. So how do they do it? They’re able to roll four lines, of course.

Barry Trotz has won 5 playoff series since the Capitals let him go. They have won none. https://t.co/SJ9dgPHmcu

— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) June 10, 2021

The Islanders’ identity is their fourth line. Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, and Casey Cizikas have played together for years – sans a mini-stint in Toronto for Martin – and are exactly what you’d expect from a fourth line, and then some. Most teams shorten the bench a bit come playoff time, but not so much the Islanders. This fourth line is averaging around 14 minutes a night, allowing their other lines to play their normal shifts. Usually, it results in the Islanders being the fresher team late in games, especially in overtime where they’re 3-1 this postseason.

New York’s depth and incredible dedication to playing heavy on the forecheck and wearing their opponents down also makes them dangerous the longer a series drags on. The Islanders are an incredible 6-0 in all games after the third game of a series this playoff, and they won three consecutive contests to eliminate both the Penguins and Bruins.

Anders Lee, the Islanders’ captain, has been out all playoff, but guys have stepped up in his absence. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a player who seemingly lives for the postseason, paces the Isles with 13 playoff points, while trade-deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri and longtime Islander Brock Nelson lead the team in goals with seven and six, respectively.

Don't look now…

But the @NYIslanders lead the #StanleyCup Playoffs in goals scored with 43. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/weKvNFKj0y

— NHL (@NHL) June 10, 2021

The Islanders are predicated on shutting down their opponent’s best players, and while a lot of that is strong defending, New York’s goaltenders are a big part of their success. Both goaltenders have save percentages north of .925 this playoff, and the luxury of keeping both fresh by riding the hot hand is a massive advantage for Barry Trotz. 

As for shutting down top players, the Islanders held Pittsburgh’s combination of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel to just five goals in six games in the first round, and despite David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand netting five each in the second round, New York held Taylor Hall and Patrice Bergeron to just a goal each, and Hall’s was into an empty net.

The Islanders and their fans are itching to get over the hump finally, and being able to take on the Lightning again with a chance at revenge may be the motivation they need to get it done.

Top Betting Picks

The sportsbooks seem to think this series will go six games, with the Lightning coming out on top. Here’s how we can tell: the Lightning are -250 to reach the Cup Final; New York is up to +205. Over 5.5 games played sits at -130, while over 6.5 games played is +250. 

I’m sure some of that is predicated on what happened last year when the Lightning, in fact, did top the Islanders in six games to reach the Final, but this Islander team is better than the 2020 version. They’re another year more experienced and have another year playing together. I’m not sure it’ll be as easy as it was in 2020 for Tampa Bay, despite them playing the majority of last year’s playoffs without their captain. However, with how difficult New York is to play against late in a series, especially now with fans back in the building, this series has a chance to go the full seven games.

The first bet I like I already mentioned: over 5.5 games played in the series at -130. These teams went six last year, and 58.3% of series so far in 2021 have gone six or more games – including the Lightning’s first-round series and both of the Islanders’ series. Plus, this is the playoff semifinals. These teams should theoretically be more closely matched than teams in most earlier round series. At -130, the implied odds are 56.5% that this series goes six or more games, giving us about a 2% edge. I like it down to -135, and despite there being no true “value edge” at -140, I would still pull the trigger.

I think if the Islanders are going to win this series, it’s going to be in seven games, and despite +205 series odds for New York, I think there’s a better way to attack this. Tampa Bay -1.5 wins (-125) is my second top pick for this series, which means they’d have to win this thing in either four, five, or six games. Given how loaded the Lightning are, how good their goaltender is when he’s hot – which he currently is – and this team is aware that they need to put the Islanders away as quickly as possible to avoid getting beat up in a long, physical series, I think the motivation is there for Tampa to get it done. And as I mentioned, if New York wins, it’ll be in a winner-take-all seventh game; and because of that, I’m sprinkling a little bit on Islanders to win the series 4-3 at +750, just in case.

The final bet I like in this series is a head-to-head player prop. Both Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Steven Stamkos have racked up 13 points in the playoffs so far, but eight of Stamkos’ 13 came in the opening round against the Panthers and their leaky goaltending. The Islanders will be much harder to play against, and Stamkos didn’t suit up for last year’s series against New York, so it’ll take some time for him to get used to their style of play. With so much talent for Tampa Bay and Stamkos being the third scoring option behind Kucherov and Point, I like Pageau +125 to score more points in the series.

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Mike Wagenman is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him on Twitter @mjwags23.

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