The Islanders took the season series 3-1, including three consecutive victories after the Lightning won the first meeting of the season on Nov. 20 at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Islanders went 1-1 at Tampa Bay, while the Lightning lost both games on Long Island. Two of the Islanders victories came in the past three weeks by a combined score of 6-1.
June 24, 2000 was quite a day in the history of both the Islanders and Lightning and a big reason why both teams are where they are today. On that day, the day of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, the Lightning traded the fifth pick in the draft to the Islanders for goalie Kevin Weekes and defenseman Kristian Kudroc. Islanders GM Mike Milbury went on a trading frenzy that day, also picking up former Lightning defenseman Roman Hamrlik and trading hot-shot goalie prospect Roberto Luongo and center Olli Jokinen to the Panthers for left wing Oleg Kvasha and right wing Mark Parrish. But the biggest move that day was getting the No. 1 pick in the draft and taking Boston University goalie Rick DiPietro, who became the first goalie ever taken first overall. Halfway through this season, one had to wonder if Milbury had made a colossal mistake, letting go of Luongo and putting his faith in DiPietro. But the move looks good now as DiPietro has developed into a solid goaltender and he's only 22. After some minor-league seasoning and a few cups of coffee with the big club the past two seasons, DiPietro emerged this season as the No. 1 goalie on Long Island. He played 50 games, compiling a 23-18-5 record with a 2.36 goals-against average. The strength of his game, though, might be as an offensive weapon. He's excellent at handling the puck and could create problems if the Lightning does a poor job on dump-ins. Playoff experience? Well, DiPietro has none at the NHL level but has done well in the postseason at the minor-league level. Meantime, the Lightning, in a way, also benefited from that 2000 draft. Weekes didn't pan out and the Lightning eventually made the bold move of acquiring Nikolai Khabibulin from Phoenix. But if the Lightning has a question mark heading into the playoffs, it's goaltending. Khabibulin has had an up-and-down season and even his own coach, John Tortorella, has been critical recently. If either team has problems with its starting goalie, it has a reliable backup. John Grahame has performed reasonably well since coming to the Lightning last season, but he has played only one postseason game at the NHL level. The Islanders can turn to veteran Garth Snow, who has played in 20 postseason games with a 9-8 record and a 2.77 GAA.
Vinny Lecavalier, meet Michael Peca. If our guess is right, look for the hard-nosed Peca, who never met a player he didn't check and check hard, to become Lecavalier's shadow in this series. Peca, the Isles captain, is one of the best defensive forwards in the game and has twice won the Selke Award (top defensive forward), including in 2002. He can get under a player's skin and Lecavalier, who is fully capable, might have to get a little down and dirty to free himself from Peca in this series.
They're a nightmare to spell and even worse to stop. Oleg Kvasha, Alexei Yashin and Mariusz Czerkawski make up the Islanders' most dangerous line. Every player on this line, particularly Yashin, often is accused of dogging it, but there's no question their talents are enormous. This line is good enough to carry a team in a series. If Peca can slow Lecavalier's line, the Lightning might have to get help from one of their other lines to stay in the series offensively.
The Lightning catches a bit of a break here. The Islanders will be without center Jason Blake, who is out with a high ankle sprain. Not only was Blake the team's fourth-leading scorer (he was second when he was injured), but he traditionally plays well against the Lightning. He had two goals in four games against Tampa Bay this season. The Lightning goes into the playoffs completely healthy.
Isn't it funny? For years the Lightning moaned about not having that go-to quarterback on defense, and two of the guys they did have now are playing for the Islanders. Roman Hamrlik and Adrian Aucoin are two of the better defensemen in the league. They combined for 69 points this season, and it will look like one or the other will be on the ice every minute of this series.
Islanders coach Steve Stirling is one those guys you can't help but root for. He started his coaching career at little Division III Babson College and eventually moved on to Providence. Then he did it all: assistant coach in the minors, head coach in the minors, assistant at the NHL level, scout. Finally, after 25 years, Sterling became an NHL head coach last summer. He has had plenty of postseason experience at other levels, but, obviously, not at the NHL level. It will be interesting to see how he responds as the series progresses. On the other hand, there's no mystery to how Lightning coach John Tortorella will behave. Intense during the regular season, Tortorella will take it up about six notches in the postseason. He has little use for any outside distractions during the playoffs and pretty much will eat, sleep and breathe hockey from here on out.