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Primed for a fall

Top-seeded Lightning are growing, but Islanders will steal series

Posted: Thursday April 8, 2004 1:32PM; Updated: Thursday April 8, 2004 1:32PM
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No. 1 Tampa Bay vs. No. 8 New York

OVERVIEW

Strange to see Tampa Bay as a heavy favorite, isn't it? Don't blink or you'll miss a Lightning goal. The Islanders' excellent corps of defensemen can carry the team, which is still searching for an offensive hero.

FORWARDS

The development of tiny Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis gives the Lightning one of the most explosive forward casts in the league. Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards can make plays with the best of them. The Islanders need a huge series from center Alexei Yashin, which may be a lot to ask as history has shown he can be controlled in the playoffs

Advantage: Lightning

DEFENSE

The Islanders have a terrific top four: Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik, Janne Niinimaa and Kenny Jonsson. All can play of ton of minutes and remain fresh, and all possess a hybrid of skills. Tampa Bay's lot, with guys such as Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich, is underrated and capable.

Advantage: Islanders

GOALIE

When Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin is on, he can be impenetrable. (Hence his nickname, The Bulin Wall). He can get into a funk though, and solid backup John Grahame (2.06) is sure to see playing time as soon as Khabibulin stumbles. In his first full season, the Islanders' Rick DiPietro already has progressed nicely and may well develop into an All-Star. He's still only 22, though, and has some growing up to do.

Advantage: Lightning

SPECIAL TEAMS

Tampa Bay, with those prolific forwards, is always a threat on the power play, and can inflict damage while short-handed as well (especially St. Louis). The Islanders' penalty-kill has been reliable all year (fifth-best in the NHL) and they get good production from their defensemen on the power play

Advantage: Lightning

COACHING

John Tortorella runs Tampa Bay with a firm hand, yet has a good relationship with his players courtesy of his candid style in the dressing room. He's also savvy at managing a game. While the Isles' Steve Stirling was successful in the minors and helped develop several prospects into players, this series marks his NHL postseason debut.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

INTANGIBLES

Tampa Bay will skate onto the ice as a favorite for the first time and will be tested in how well they handle those expectations. The challenge will be made all the more difficult by an Islanders club that has beaten the Lightning consistently during the regular season over the past few years

Advantage: Islanders

OVERALL

After advancing to the second round last year, the Lightning appears to be growing into a serious Cup contender. But if DiPietro can steal a game or two, and he can, the Isles will have Tampa Bay on the ropes. Islanders in seven.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.

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