After a very topsy turvy second round, the playing field has been narrowed down to four teams, and the Stanley Cup Conference Finals are finally ready to kick off. Sunday marks the first day of play as the Lightning face off against the Islanders in a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Final.
Not surprisingly, the conversation over the last few days has largely revolved around how New York will fair. They’ve fought the odds through two rounds despite being without captain Anders Lee, topping the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and muscling past the hard-hitting Boston Bruins. Defense continues to be the Islanders’ best weapon, while the likes of Kyle Palmieri and Jean-Gabriel Pageau have made a big impact on the front end.
But will all that be enough for Barry Trotz’s Isles to overcome the reigning Stanley Cup champs?
Before we try calling the entire series in one fell swoop, let’s check out the top NHL betting pick for Game 1.
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New York Islanders (+170) at Tampa Bay Lightning (-200)
Again, you really have to hand it to the Isles for how well they have risen to the occasion during these playoffs, especially with how they rallied to win three straight against the Bruins and end that series with a 6-2 victory last Wednesday.
That being said, it’s easy to see why the Bolts are the favorite to take Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Tampa Bay has evolved into a different team during hockey’s second season, especially when it comes to special teams. Getting both Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup at the start of the playoffs has turned the Bolts’ first power-play unit into a spectacular force. Along with forwards Brayden Point and Alex Killorn and defenseman Victor Hedman, TB’s top unit on the man advantage has registered 15 goals and 29 assists in 11 games. During the regular season, the Lightning’s power play was ranked ninth in the league with a 22.2% success rating – now, they have the top power play in the playoffs at 41.7%.
Long story short: The Islanders are going to have their hands full in Game 1 on Sunday if they make too many trips to the sin bin.
Goaltending is also what makes the Bolts the favorite in Sunday’s game. Andrei Vasilevskiy has given up fewer and fewer goals as the playoffs have rolled along. (Well, aside from giving up four goals in one period against the Hurricanes last round, but he rebounded to shut Carolina out 2-0 in the final game of that series.)
While netminder Semyon Varlamov has also played stronger as the Isles have advanced through the playoffs, he also surrendered a few questionable goals to the Bruins, mainly the overtime game-winner in Game 3. Tampa Bay packs a bigger offensive punch than Boston, so New York’s defense is going to have its hands full backing Varlamov up and keeping the Bolts’ big scorers on the outside.
None of this is to say the Islanders can’t evolve as the series goes on. Or that they can’t stage an upset against the Lightning. In Game 1, however, the defending Cup champs have the edge.
Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning (-200)
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Chelena Goldman is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Chelena, check out her archive and follow her @ChelenaGoldman.
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