For Islanders, ‘fair’ Stanley Cup semifinal schedule offers much better start vs. Lightning

Mathew Barzal Islanders
Mathew Barzal and the Islanders took Game 1 of the Stanley Cup semifinals on Sunday afternoon.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Now that was the kind of opening that head coach Barry Trotz expects from his New York Islanders after they came away with a 2-1 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup semifinals in Tampa Bay against the Lightning on Sunday afternoon — not what happened last season.

This is the second-straight season that the Islanders and Lightning are meeting in the Stanley Cup semifinal stage of the postseason, though under much different circumstances. 

Eastern Conference teams started their playoffs last year in the Toronto bubble amid the COVID-19 pandemic and after the preliminary round, along with its quarterfinal and semifinal stages, the conference final would be shifted across Canada, 2,000 miles west to Edmonton.

The Lightning thumped the Boston Bruins in the second round in just five games, earning an entire week off before the start of the conference final to pack up, head west, and prepare for their next opponent.

Meanwhile, the Islanders were pushed to seven games by the Philadelphia Flyers and had just one day off to rush to Edmonton and settle in before playing the well-rested, well-prepared Lightning.

The gulf in class and preparation showed in that Game 1 as the Lightning crushed the Islanders 8-2, putting Trotz’s men in a hole they would never claw out of despite stretching the series to six games that included two overtime affairs, a Game 2 loss that saw the Islanders yield the game-winning goal with nine seconds left in regulation. In fact, three of the final four games of the series were decided by three goals or fewer. 

So it was only natural that Sunday’s series opener was decided by a single goal — and that the Islanders looked the far better side for large stretches of the afternoon thanks to proper rest and preparation this time around.

“I thought it was fair. It was fair,” Trotz said of the start of this series. “Last year I didn’t think it was fair. I didn’t like the spot we put ourselves in. Today was reminiscent of Games 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 last year. Both teams are pretty much the same as last year. We’re pretty similar.

“There hasn’t been any overhaul on both sides. Pretty much what we expected. In some ways, that was good. Being familiar with a team you haven’t played for six months or whatever, was good. Good start for us.”

It’s actually been nine months since the teams last played as the NHL’s 56-game geographically driven schedule limited every team to a slate of games against clubs that were only in their own division — which were specially drawn up by the league for this year only. 

Normally there would be some initial tepidness that comes between two teams that haven’t seen each other in all that time. But that wasn’t the case, especially for the Islanders, as they were able to get to their game pretty early.

“I thought there would be a feeling-out process a little bit, at least for a period, maybe half a game,” Trotz said. “It didn’t seem that way. It seemed like both teams were familiar and both teams went at it.”