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New York Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Game 1 Odds, Picks & Preview: The Isles Are Big Underdogs Again (Sunday, June 13)

New York Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Game 1 Odds, Picks & Preview: The Isles Are Big Underdogs Again (Sunday, June 13) article feature image

Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images. Pictured: Brock Nelson

Islanders vs. Lightning Odds

Islanders Odds +165
Lightning Odds -200
Over/Under 5.5
Time Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
Odds as of Sunday and via DraftKings.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The New York Islanders are big underdogs against one of the league’s best teams in a playoff series.

Even after two impressive, grind-them-down victories over the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, the betting market remains a little lukewarm on the Isles, who are +220 underdogs to win their best-of-7 contest with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It’s a familiar spot for the Isles, as they sat at a similar price against the Boston Bruins in Round 2 and were also underdogs against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1. New York was able to gut out both of those series even after falling behind, 2-1, in each one. It was another feather in the cap for an organization that has found a way to win despite being counted out at seemingly every turn over the past three seasons.

The job for the Islanders doesn’t get any easier, though, as Barry Trotz’s side will now take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. After finishing third in the Central, the skeptics out there wondered if the Bolts would be able to raise their level in the postseason in order to overcome a daunting path that started with a Sunrise State Showdown against the upstart Florida Panthers and the Cup-contending Carolina Hurricanes. Tampa quieted the critics by dispatching the Cats and Canes without too much of a fuss.

Tampa’s current form is hard to argue with, which is why bookmakers have tagged the Bolts as -265 favorites in this series. When you convert those odds to implied win probability, the Lightning are expected to win this series just about 72.6% of the time.

That number may seem quite high considering how tough an out the Isles have proven to be under Trotz, but it won’t surprise folks who have been following the NHL betting market over the past few seasons. Although the Islanders posted strong underlying metrics for much of this season, bookmakers, market-setters and statistical modelers have had a tough time figuring out how the Isles get their results.

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Trying to Make Sense of the Isles

It’s hard to put a number on intangibles like chemistry, knowledge of a system and resiliency, so oftentimes bettors just draw a line through those abstract concepts and stick to their numbers. For the most part, that is the right way to approach betting on the NHL — drowning out the noise and sticking to predictive stats — but there is always an exception to the rule, and perhaps the Isles are just an outlier and should be handled as such until proven otherwise.

As far as the numbers go, the Isles have struggled to control play at 5-on-5 over the first 12 games of their postseason journey. New York has skated to a +0.72 goal differential per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in the playoffs, but its expected goal differential per 60 sits at -0.32 (per Evolving Hockey). Furthermore, the Isles allowed 27 more high-danger scoring chances than they created (per Natural Stat Trick) against the Pens and Bruins.

On the surface those numbers scream regression, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of how the Isles got to this point. While the Bruins put up dominant numbers in Games 1 and 5, the Isles held their own in the other four contests, either controlling play or turning the contest into a coin flip. It was a similar story in Round 1 against the Penguins. Sure, the overall numbers may not be grand, but a deeper look reveals that the Isles usually did enough, on a game-by-game basis, to stick around. That’s how underdogs have to win in the postseason.

Additionally, the Islanders are masters at bending but not breaking. New York doesn’t ever mind losing the field-position battle because it is a terrific counter-attacking team. By now everyone knows the type of magic Mat Barzal can create when he has space, but Brock Nelson’s line is also fantastic in transition and is coming off a fabulous performance in Game 6 against the Bruins.

While Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey have done a lot of damage on the counter, the Isles also have two very good checking lines that can forecheck all game long. Tampa has the puck-movers to answer that pressure, but absorbing hits from Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas, or dealing with pressure from Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Kyle Palmieri, will take its toll on any defense over the course of a series.

The Lightning Are Still Elite

It should also be noted that, while Tampa was able to win its series with Florida and Carolina with room to spare, the Bolts didn’t dominate at 5-on-5. The Lightning skated to a 51.9% expected goals rate in their first 11 games and actually lost the xG battle with the Panthers, 11.12 to 9.76, at 5-on-5. And even though the Lightning outscored the Hurricanes, 14-9 overall, the margin was just 7-6 at even strength.

Of course the Bolts don’t need to impose their will at 5-on-5 to have success. Tampa has game-breakers at every position and each of them is capable of turning a game on its head with a moment of magic. A lot of that wizardry takes place on the power play, which is clipping at an absurd 41.9% rate in the playoffs. The Islanders were one of the least-penalized teams in the NHL over the regular season and their penalty kill, for the most part, was pretty good, but Florida and Carolina learned the hard way that losing track of your discipline against Tampa is a non-starter if you want to get out of this series alive.

Another reason that the Bolts don’t necessarily need to control play to have success is their All-World goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy. After finishing the regular season with a +18.2 Goals Saved Above Expectation (GSAx), the 26-year-old has stood on his head in the postseason with a .931 save percentage and league-leading +12.9 GSAx.

The Lightning will present a different challenge for the Isles. While the Penguins and Bruins were top-heavy and perhaps overly-reliant on their star players, the Lightning have plenty of oomph behind their all-stars. While Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman will get the headlines, what separates the Bolts from the chasing pack is that those virtuosos are supported by a middle-six that features the likes of Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman, and a blue line that features Erik Cernak, Ryan McDonagh, David Savard and Mikhail Sergachev.

Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Ryan McDonagh

That type of roster makeup means that not only can the Lightning beat anyone in a run-and-gun style, but they can also hold their own if the Islanders are able to turn these contests into grind-it-out, forecheck-fests. This forward group will be another huge test for the Islanders blue line, but thus far they’ve been able to weather the storm against Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Boston’s Perfection Line, so there is certainly a scenario where New York can withstand Tampa’s offensive buzzsaw, especially if Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield play as well as they did against the Bruins. Pelech and Pulock are turning into the league’s preeminent shutdown pairing, while Mayfield does a great job of being physical-yet-responsible in his own end. All three players will be asked to eat a ton of hard minutes in this series, but nothing we’ve seen from them this postseason has shown us that they won’t have a chance to contain some of Tampa’s talismanic forwards.

Lightning vs. Islanders Best Bet

The Lightning are deserving favorites in this matchup. The Bolts have built a deep roster that is topped off with starpower up front and the world’s best goalie backing it up. That said, the Islanders have made it a trademark to turn games with more talented opponents into coin flips, and while that may not be a skill that pops up in the numbers, it does always make the Isles an appealing watch as an underdog.

There is no doubting that there are a lot of signals pointing to Tampa being too tough of an ask for the Isles. The Lightning have been the league’s best team over the past three seasons and have shown no signs of slowing down in this postseason. Everybody will be expecting the Lightning to advance, and there’s nothing wrong or disrespectful about that. Tampa is, quite simply, the better team in this matchup.

That said, everything in betting comes down to price and the listed odds imply that the New York Islanders win Game 1 around 37.7% of the time. Considering what we’ve seen from the Isles over this postseason, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a chance on the underdog in this game and series. This team has proven people wrong at every turn and it’s not out of the question that they can unseat the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

I like the Islanders at any number better than +150 for Game 1 and would also play their series price down to +185.

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