Return of crowds makes this Islanders-Lightning clash more intriguing


It is encouraging that the Islanders and Lightning clashed once again in the Stanley Cup semi-finals.

Because not only is this a rematch, but it’s essentially a fan do-over, held in a separate bubble in Edmonton after the 2020 conference finals inside an empty arena due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The only thing you could hear at Rogers Place was the sound of pucks hitting sticks and players communicating on the ice. There was no applause after the goal, or ridicule from the opposing fans, just the sound of a regular hockey game.

But these semi-finals should not be just another regular hockey series. Last season it was borderline morbid to see two teams competing against each other for a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, a few league employees and a handful of media members.

Nikita Kucherov and Matthew Barzali
Nikita Kucherov and Matthew Barzali
AP; Getty Images

That’s what makes this upcoming Islanders-Lightning series so important: it’s an encore that can be played in the proper conditions.

“I think as soon as we started having fans, the value of that, experiencing that, that we didn’t miss [on],” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said after Wednesday’s series-win over the Bruins. “Tampa won a cup without any fans. I mean, it could be his inspiration. I know fans give us the energy to say, ‘Hey, this is fun. Let’s keep going and see how far we can take it.’

“Last year was a great experience. One that players will always remember because you were in the dorm for basically two months. We did some things that some players really couldn’t get past a round or two and find out That it’s a different kind of mindset than you should have. They enjoyed the experience, even though it was grueling.

“I think this year the experience has been the same. But as we’ve started to have fans and our lives go back to normal, through everyone’s vaccinations and it all definitely makes a lot more sense. Reinforcing the experience we had last year, as well as the fans now. It’s a great feeling.”

The Islanders and Lightning haven’t played each other since last September 17, when Tampa Bay ended the Isles season with a 2-1 Game 6 overtime win. Of course, at the conclusion of the bubble playoffs the Lightning eventually lifted the cup, beating the Stars in six games.

These two teams will meet for the first time this year, due to the reorganization of divisions this season to reduce travel amid the pandemic. This brings its own set of challenges for both the squads.

Through the first two rounds, the Lightning and the Islanders each saw the team eight times during the regular season. It becomes very easy to strategize when you are so familiar with your opponents.

But one thing is certain: This Lightning-Islanders series will be given its due spotlight.

“This is a great opportunity for us to see [the Lightning] Again in the semi-finals, ”said Anthony Bouvillier. “To be back where we were last year with some unfinished business, this is a great opportunity for us and we’re really looking forward to it.”

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