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New York Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning @NHLdotcom
Islanders-Lightning Preview

GAME: New York Islanders (38-29-11-4) at Tampa Bay Lightning (46-22-8-6).

PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference quarterfinals; Game 1.

TIME: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EDT.

The Tampa Bay Lightning aren't worried about being in an unfamiliar position as the Eastern Conference's top seed heading into the playoffs.

They're more concerned with getting by a first-round opponent that has given them plenty of problems over the last few seasons.

The top-seeded Lightning begin their quarterfinal series when they host the New York Islanders.

Tampa Bay won its first Southeast Division title and the first playoff series in team history in 2002-03 before falling to the New Jersey Devils in five games in the conference semifinals.

The Lightning built off that success this season, establishing franchise records in wins (46) and points (106) en route to a second straight division title and first-place finish in the East.

"You win your division and now you win your conference," Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said. "Two or three years ago, who would have thought that? And the credit goes to the guys in the locker room.

"They stayed together and accomplished a couple of nice things here. Now that's done with. Now it's on to bigger and better things."

Tampa Bay has a strong offense, led by Hart Trophy candidate Martin St. Louis, who won the NHL scoring title with 38 goals and 56 assists for a career-best 94 points.

The Lightning scored the third-most goals in the NHL behind Ottawa and Detroit, and their center combination of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards combined to score 58 of the team's 245 goals.

Wingers Fredrik Modin, Cory Stillman and Dave Andreychuk scored 75 goals between them.

But those six players didn't do well against the Islanders this season. They combined for four goals in the series, which New York won 3-1 to improve to 9-3 against Tampa Bay since the 2001-02 season.

"Are we a little nervous playing against them? Of course," Lightning center Tim Taylor told the Tampa Bay Tribune. "I think you have to be nervous playing against anyone. They have beaten us pretty good over the last couple of years. I think that gives us a little more motivation. We have to play harder."

Despite losing three of the four regular season matchups with the Islanders, St. Louis thinks the Lightning are still the team to beat in the East.

"Now it's a whole new season," St. Louis said. "It's zero-zero. Their three or four victories mean nothing right now. That's all I can say about that."

Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro went 2-1 with a 1.34 goals-against average and a shutout against the Lightning this season, but he expects to have a lot more trouble with their high-scoring forwards in this series.

"They are a deadly team," DiPietro said. "They have plenty of guys who can skate and put the puck in the net. They earned their number one seeding and it's going to be a huge task to try to knock them off. I'd almost rather be the underdog because it takes some pressure off. We'll just go out and play. This is where the fun starts."

It took until the last weekend of the season for the Islanders to clinch the final playoff berth in the East, but they played well down the stretch and held off Buffalo for the eighth seed.

New York went 8-3-1 in its last 12 games - including two victories over Tampa Bay - and is looking to avoid being ousted in the first round for the third straight season.

The Islanders lost in seven games to Toronto in 2001-02 before getting eliminated in five games by Ottawa last season.

"It's painful to get knocked out in the first round," said Islanders forward Mark Parrish, who scored 24 goals this season despite missing 23 games with an ankle injury. "We want to go as far as we can and get the bad taste of being bounced out after the first round out of our mouths. We want to make some noise this year."

Game 2 is Saturday at Tampa before the series moves to New York for Games 3 and 4 next Monday and Wednesday.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Islanders - 91 points; 8th seed. Lightning - 106 points; 1st seed.

TEAM LEADERS: Islanders - Trent Hunter and Mariusz Czerkawski, 25 goals; Oleg Kvasha, 36 assists; Hunter and Kvasha, 51 points; Eric Cairns, 189 PIM. Lightning - St. Louis, 38 goals, 56 assists and 94 points; Chris Dingman, 140 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Islanders - Power play: 16.6 percent (54 for 325), 14th in NHL. Penalty killing: 85.5 percent (307 for 359), 5th. Lightning - Power play: 16.2 percent (55 for 339), 16th. Penalty killing: 84.9 percent (236 for 278), 10th.

GOALTENDERS: Islanders - DiPietro (23-18-5, 5 SO, 2.36 GAA); Garth Snow (14-15-5, 1, 2.80). Lightning - Nikolai Khabibulin (28-19-7, 3, 2.33); John Grahame (18-9-1, 1, 2.06).

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Islanders, 3-1. The Lightning won the first meeting 3-2 on Nov. 20, but the Islanders rebounded to outscore them 11-3 in winning the last three matchups. Michael Peca had a goal and three assists for New York, while St. Louis was held to one assist and a minus-4 rating in the series.

Associated Press
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