Barry Trotz didn’t mince words when saying that this is what he wanted for him and his team.
“I’m glad it’s Tampa,” the Islanders’ head coach said on Thursday in a radio spot on ESPN NY Radio. “If you’re going to win a Stanley Cup, why not go through the best.”
Now the hard part comes.
The Isles, just like they’ve had to do throughout these playoffs, will have to overcome another powerhouse opponent in the Tampa Bay Lightning. Pittsburgh and Boston were both great teams, but they aren’t the Lightning. Tampa Bay is the defending champs for a reason.
They’re loaded from top to bottom. Their goalie, Andrei Vasilveskiy, is the best in the league. Their head coach — Jon Cooper — is among the elite in the NHL in every sense. And they can flip the game in a split second, especially with their other-worldly power play.
But this is the challenge the Islanders have been salivating for. They have “unfinished business” with that team, as many of the players have preached since beating Boston on Wednesday night. That theme has resonated since Anthony Cirelli put a loose puck past Semyon Varlamov in overtime of game six in the Conference Finals last year to end the series. Yes, the Islanders were that close to playing for a title, two wins away to be exact.
“It’s a great opportunity for us seeing [the Lightning] again in the semifinals,” Anthony Beauvillier said to reporters after Game 6. “To get back to the spot we were last year with some unfinished business, it’s a great opportunity for us and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Many are still considering the Isles the underdog again heading in to this rematch — which isn’t totally untrue — but the playing field is more even. It can be argued it was at times when the two teams clashed the last time. NYIHockeyNow’s Andy Graziano pointed it out on Thursday.
Take out the 'deer in headlights' game one last year, #isles vs Tampa.
Tampa outscored Isles 12-10, won on a rare defensive lapse in game two and won game six in overtime.
Game three also included 66 PIMs.
Strap in. This should be fun.
— Andy Graziano (@AndyGraz_19) June 10, 2021
Those optics show the series was a lot more closer than it looked. The Isles and their fans can take solace in knowing that. Things are different this time around.
Where things vary going into this battle with the Bolts as opposed to last summer is Mathew Barzal and Co. are deeper and even more battle-tested. Granted they are still without captain Anders Lee — which is almost ironic for the fact that Tampa was without their leader in Steven Stamkos for the entire playoffs in the bubble — but the Isles found the pieces who have contributed tremendously in his absence. Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac have had outstanding postseasons. Even Oliver Wahlstrom, who they didn’t have last year and hasn’t played since getting hurt in round one, is another guy the Isles weren’t equipped with. The Islanders have shown too they can win in the postseason in a variety of ways not just the first two rounds but for years now.
“I think they’re going to be a little bit different than they were last year, we’re going to be a little bit different than we were last year,” Trotz said. “Even though it’s not even a complete year since we played them. They’re going to be a little bit different, and we’ll find out when we get there.”
This series will mark the third time in six years the Islanders and Lightning have met in the playoffs. The first two have gone to the Tampa (the one also when they met in 2004 was won by the Bolts, who eventually went one to win the Stanley Cup). Will the third time be a charm? The oddsmakers and predictors say no.
The Isles believe differently.
“We just believe we’re a good team,” said Matt Martin. “We expected to be here. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy against a really good Pittsburgh team and a really good Boston team. But coming into this season, we expected to be here.”
Chalk this matchup however you want. Revenge factor, rematch, whatever. Now the Islanders must beat this Tampa Bay goliath. The same team they saw celebrate in front of them. The same one they desired.
Follow Rob on Twitter at @RTaub_