Last time the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning met in a playoff series, the two teams were actually headed in opposite directions.
Despite new ownership that had invested in the club, the Isles were still mired in drama over how they would ever replace, or extract more revenue from their awful lease with, the beloved but flawed Nassau Coliseum. On the ice, despite a short-term boost from that ownership willing to increase spending despite poor revenues, decisions were still at the mercy of a madman in the GM chair.
The Isles finished 21 points ahead of the afterthought Rangers in the final season of pre-shootout NHL. But the Lightning were truly on the rise, with a fiery coach and a trio of forward stars, plus an offensive defenseman who would one day follow his then-coach in publicly cussing out Larry Brooks.
After some locker room shenanigans between the two teams, the Bolts dispatched the Isles on their way to the Cup. Then the league and NHLPA, in their infinite wisdom on how best to take and divide your money, canceled a whole season.
In the intervening years, the Lightning were sold to clowns who had nowhere near the stable resources they pretended to have. The team bottomed out before Gary Bettman found a legit owner, who found a new general manager, and they are once again among the league's best. The Isles finally dumped Milbury, went through a rebuild, more years of venue drama, and finally found stability with a new franchise star and a new home with working plumbing.
Sports franchises go through cycles -- sometimes 23-years long -- that put fans largely at the mercy of whoever happens to own and run the team at any given moment. Now that the Lightning and Isles have both emerged from their latest walks through darkness, they're about to play what should be an entertaining second-round series.
To get a feel for how things look from Tampa's end, we asked longtime Lightning blogger and Raw Charge founder John Fontana to field the following five questions. Though the Islanders are missing Anders Lee, Ryan Pulock and Jaroslav Halak, the Lightning have dealt with two more significant injuries:
1. Life without Stamkos. How have the Lightning adjusted in his absence?
Life without the team captain that draws attention and has a great presence and charisma sucks. The process of adjustment I think Isles fans saw firsthand when we were at Barclays Center on April 4 (5-2 Isles win)... Which was also the date Stammer had gone under the knife to remove his blood clot.
A blah end to the regular season didn't quite truly adjust the team, but playing the Red Wings and getting everyone working together did. Mind you, Tampa Bay has shown most of its offense off of one line - not all of it but most seem to be coming from Alex Killorn - Tyler Johnson - Nikita Kucherov's line - but there's been a general effectiveness that's come into being without the services of #91 (ours, not yours. Hi Mister Tavares.)
2. Life without Stralman. How have they adjusted there, and what changes if he comes back this series?
This one has been.... Eh... Anton Stralman is a fantastic presence on the blue line and while there have been sound defensive efforts without Stralman, there have also been glaring lapses at other times, survived by way of Ben Bishop in net.
Our new writer loserpoints has a great piece regarding life without Stralman. And yes, Stralman will return during the series (with thanks, in part, to the time between games).
3. Seemed like dispatching the Red Wings was fairly easy as far as playoff series victories go. But are there any areas of concern that popped up or were amplified as a result of that series?
Will referees haunt us like they did all over again? We faced 25 penalty-kill sessions during the series, and while we staved off Detroit's power play... well, the Red Wings offense wasn't a consistent spark for the team during the season. Pair that okay-but-eh?
The state of the Tampa Bay defense without Stralman, paired with the Islanders power play ability, and you have all the makings of potential issues.
There's also the point that it was easier to see contributions from the top line that Tyler Johnson centers. If two lines aren't able to score, if it's that top-heavy with offensive threat, that makes the offensive scheme easier to shut down if the opponent can lock down that top threat.
(Ed. note: Apparently referees handed the Isles their last series win, so...screw all of Florida! The NHL shadow government is on our side!)
4. What has been the difference between last year's Cup finalist and this year's team? Was it just a matter of shaking off the hangover and getting their groove back?
Overblown expectations is one thing I've long clung to regarding this season. Before game 1 was ever played, certain local columnists were bellowing how it was a Cup-or-bust season for the Bolts. Anything less than the Glory of Lord Stanley's Cup and the Lightning are a vicious failure and blah-blah-blah-blah. Eighty-two games have to get played, and it's a challenge (for any team) to survive that, let alone strive... And yet surviving just wasn't what Tampa Bay was being pushed to do by certain media and fans. The Lightning had to do it all and then some before even getting to the playoffs.
I think they got clouded in expectations driven by accomplishments from last season. This season isn't last season and never is... You have to approach it without thinking of what you just did, but what needs to be done going forward.
Certain things didn't click right. The Jonathan Drouin situation is a great example of that, he was supposed to click with everyone and become this immense contributor on offense... That didn't happen. He had flaws, he had issues, the club had other depth and assets to help bolster their game, all hell broke loose (distraction wise) by way of it.
To cut back to the point: It's having expectations leading more than the drive to accomplish that stunted Tampa Bay a bit. It didn't stop them (we wouldn't be having this conversation if it did, Eastern Conference Semifinal opponent), but it did mar things just enough for opponents to take advantage and slow the Lightning down a notch.
5. Be honest. Are you happy the Isles knocked off the Panthers?
Actually, no. That's not because I see the Isles as a bigger threat to overcome or because of anything against the Islanders. It's more about a long overdue rekindling of regional rivalry in Florida.
Think of it this way: if the Isles had to face the Rangers or the Devils in an Eastern Conference Semifinal or Conference Final, Isles fans would be stoked and the opposition as well, wanting to take out this other threat from the region and gain reign over the tri-state area, etc. Rivalry stuff that you see play out in the regular season with those clubs and with other NHL clubs that are close to each other and have a history.
Tampa Bay and the Florida Panthers have never faced each other in the NHL playoffs. It's been 20 years since both teams were in the playoffs at the same time. It's felt that long since games between the two clubs got heated / seemed to hold weight and relevance.
That's not trying to play down the Islanders. Depending on how things play out, we could end up having heated-rival like shenanigans down the road in seasons ahead. It's just having weighty games that we've lacked against an in-state competitor would have been interesting. It also would have let hockey fans in Florida point and laugh at those who still adhere to the opinion hockey doesn't belong in the Sunshine State.
(Ed. Yeah, that's what I was getting at. Had the Isles fallen, one consolation was getting to see the first Battle of Florida. Hopefully it happens sometime soon.
Thanks to John for sharing his time! Good luck to his team...next year.)