The New York Islanders are heading to the Stanley Cup semifinals for the second consecutive season following a 6-2 victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 6 of their second-round series Wednesday.
It's also the second straight year the Bruins, who lost the series 4-2, have been eliminated in the second round after reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2019.
While the Islanders are now just four wins away from returning to the Final, their third-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning will mark the first time this season either club has played a team outside their respective divisions. The NHL's realignment this season meant teams would only play within their conference until the Cup semifinals.
After getting pulled in a 5-4 loss in Game 5, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask returned to the crease Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum only to allow four goals on 27 shots in the loss. Brock Nelson once again led the Islanders to victory with two goals.
Brock Nelson, C, New York Islanders: 2 Goals, 4 SOG, 2 Takeaways
Josh Bailey, RW, New York Islanders: 2 Assists, 1 Hit, 17:38 TOI
Semyon Varlamov, G, New York Islanders: 2 Goals Allowed, 23 Saves
Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins: 2 Goals, Minus-3 Plus/Minus, 4 Hits
Tuukka Rask, G, Boston Bruins: 4 Goals Allowed, 23 Saves
Isles Exit East Bubble
The New York Islanders were not the best team in their own division this season. That title belonged to the 77-point Pittsburgh Penguins, who claimed the East via tiebreaker with the Washington Capitals.
Instead, the Isles finished fourth in their division with 71 points—good for the 12th-most points in the league. Now, hockey fans will start to find out just what that all means.
Because of the league’s division realignment this year due to the pandemic, no teams played anyone outside their own grouping at any point during the season. When the Islanders play the defending champion Lightning next round, it'll mark the first time the two have faced off since Tampa Bay won the Eastern Conference Final last September.
Fortunately for the Isles, they're going outside their division at just the right time. Nelson has been one of the hottest scorers this postseason, notching two more goals Wednesday night to bring his playoff tally to six goals and four assists in 12 games. Meanwhile, goaltender Semyon Varlamov continues to settle into the postseason with seven goals allowed in his last three games.
He'll need to keep lowering those numbers after allowing 16 goals in six games to Tampa Bay last year.
It's been tough for NHL fans to figure out just where their teams rank outside their divisions this year. With the No. 4 team in the East matching up with the No. 3 team in the Central, that answer should get a bit clearer.
If all goes well for the Islanders, the series will also bring them back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984. Eight more wins, however, will give New York its first championship since winning four straight from 1980 to 1983.
Where Does Boston Go Now?
Before the Bruins attempt to reset for next season, Boston will have to figure out how committed it is to Rask in net.
This playoff run didn't exactly help his case. Heading into Game 6, the veteran carries a 92.5 save percentage with 12 goals allowed in 10 games. He then gave up another four in an elimination loss to New York.
The problem for Boston, however, is how much of an improvement Rask's numbers were from previous years. Not since the 2019 postseason had Rask saved more than 93 percent of his shots faced. That remains his career high with an overall average of 92.6 and 2.20 goals allowed average.
Despite the Bruins taking a 2-1 series lead over New York, that wasn't enough to close out.
Rask is in the final season of an eight-year, $56 million deal. He's set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason. If the Bruins are bringing him back, it likely won't be fore the same $7 million average annual value he earned on his last deal.
That's because David Krejci, Taylor Hall, Ondrei Kase, Brandon Carlo, Nicholas Richie, Mike Reilly, Kevan Smith and Jaroslav Halak are all free agents as well.
While the $81.5 million salary cap is expected to rise next year, it might be difficult for Boston to keep every player it wants to. Those discussions will have to start with Rask—and determine whether the man who took over for Tim Thomas in net will remain in the crease moving forward.
The Islanders and Lightning will face off for the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup. No start time has been announced for Game 1 as of Wednesday.