After five days without a game, the Tampa Bay Lightning finally return to the ice tonight when they host the New York Islanders in Game 1 of a Second Round playoff series at Amalie Arena.
The Bolts practiced twice during the extended break, on Sunday and again Tuesday. Although the time off could derail the Bolts’ momentum from winning two-straight games and four of five overall in their First Round series versus Detroit, players and coaches alike said the time off was a welcome rest from the long-term grind of the NHL postseason.
“We’ve had some good practices,” Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn said. “We’re ready to go. We’re sharp, and I think time off was good for a lot of guys.”
Ryan Callahan said he doesn’t expect any rust to creep into the Bolts’ game tonight.
“I think that comes through practice and making sure we’re keeping a good pace in practice and good intensity,” he said. “I thought we did that yesterday. We had a really good practice yesterday. We’re all pros. We’ve dealt with breaks before, and we realize the magnitude of a Game 1. I don’t think there will be any rust or trying to get going for this one.”
Steven Stamkos skated for a second-straight day in a red no-contact jersey during Tampa Bay’s morning skate on Wednesday, which was optional and attended by 13 players, including both starting goaltender Ben Bishop and backup Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Anton Stralman (non-displaced fracture of left fibula) and J.T. Brown (upper-body injury) did not participate in morning skate. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper didn’t have an update on Stralman’s status, other than to say he would not play in Game 1 tonight.
The Lightning lost two of three games to the Islanders in 2015-16, including a 5-2 shellacking in Brooklyn during the final week of the regular season (April 4).
The Bolts and Isles split a pair of games at Amalie Arena. New York rallied from a two-goal deficit to down the Lightning 3-2 on Nov. 28. The Bolts picked up their lone victory in the regular-season series on March 25, scoring a season-high seven goals in a 7-4 win.
But Cooper said not to read too much into those regular-season results between the two teams.
“The last time they came down here, they’d been on the road for a while, it was one of those nights where everything we were shooting was going in,” Cooper said. “And when we went up there for game 78, everything they shot went in. I don’t know. I don’t put a whole lot of stock into what we did in the regular season. I put a lot of stock into what they did against Florida…There’s no trickery to their game. They just play a structured system. They’ve been doing it from game one and they stick with it.”
Islanders captain John Tavares scored five times in six games during the Florida series and, together with the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, paces the NHL for playoff goals. But, it’s not just Tavares the Bolts will have to account for in the series.
“They have a lot of threats,” Coburn said. “Their captain’s a great player, and they have a lot of skilled guys in their lineup over there. They’ve got a good mix of grit and skill, and their goalie’s playing really well right now. There’s a lot of things we need to worry about.”
In net, Thomas Greiss played in half of New York’s regular season games but has taken hold of the starting spot over Jaroslav Halak and allowed just 13 goals in the six-game Florida series. Greiss ranks fourth in the NHL for goals-against average (1.79) and save percentage (.944), both numbers right behind Bolts goalie Ben Bishop (1.61 GAA, .950 save %).
“The biggest key for us is play to our strengths,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. “Don’t focus too much on the opponent. We know if we play the right way, we’re going to have a lot of success. We know we’re off to a big challenge, but this team is all about rising to the occasion and I expect us nothing less from us.”
The Tampa Bay-Detroit First Round matchup didn’t have much of a feeling-out process in Game 1, perhaps because the two teams were renewing their playoff series from the previous season.
But expect the Lightning and Islanders to take a little more time to get acquainted with one another, especially with the Bolts returning from a long layoff.
“Different series I’ve played in, Game 1 has been a feeling-out process and other series you get right into it,” Coburn said. “…It just depends.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Ben Bishop will make his 31st playoff start tonight and is 17-12 all-time in the postseason. Bishop has given up two goals or less in all five playoff starts in 2016 and eight straight going back to last season…The Lightning have the top-ranked penalty kill in the league currently after killing 24-of-25 Detroit power plays (96 percent) in the First Round…The Bolts are 15-1 since the start of the 2015 playoffs when scoring the game’s opening goal (3-12 when the opponent scores first)…Tampa Bay leads the 2016 playoffs for total penalties (42), minor penalties (35) and penalty minutes (127)…The Lightning are 5-2-1 at home vs. the Islanders over the last four seasons.