In the end, it was the more proven team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. Even minus leading goalscorer Steven Stamkos and second defenseman Anton Stralman, the more experienced Lightning prevailed over the Islanders in five games.
It was their will that allowed them to come back and rally twice from one-goal deficits to break Islander hearts with consecutive overtime wins, which turned the closely fought second round series in their direction. And so, a convincing 4-0 shutout in Game 5 sent the Islanders home for the summer. They’ll have all off-season to look back on what could have been.
For captain John Tavares, he’s probably tired of seeing Victor Hedman. The top two picks in the famed ’09 Draft battled for five games. Hedman got the upper hand by stifling the Isles’ star center- holding him without a point the final four games. Following a goal and assist in the team’s only win which they chased Tampa starter Ben Bishop, Tavares was unable to escape the tight checking of Hedman, who had help from Braydon Coburn along with Craig Paquette and familiar faces Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan.
It didn’t matter who Islanders’ coach Jack Capuano put with Tavares. So detailed was the Lightning checking that they shut down one of the league’s best players. Coincidentally, while Tavares was left frustrated with two points and hardly any room unlike the first round when his nine points took apart the Panthers, it was the brilliant Hedman who dominated the match-up scoring twice in the 4-0 win. Similar to his performance against the Rangers in last year’s seven-game Eastern Conference Final, Hedman dominated finishing with eight points (4-4-8) and a plus-six rating. He did it both offensively and defensively while logging the most ice-time.
”Brutal. It’s hard to believe it’s over,” Tavares said. ”You put a lot into this and we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do.”
”We obviously played some good hockey at times, but we just let those two games at home slip away. That put us behind the 8-ball for (Sunday).”
The 25-year old Swede is one of the game’s top defensemen. He might not have the flair of countryman Erik Karlsson or the lethal rocket of Brent Burns. But he makes the game look easy. Similar to the other Norris candidate Drew Doughty, Hedman can impact a game in all three zones. He posted career highs in points (47) and plus/minus (21) while blocking a career best 132 shots.
”Last year was a good experience for me and the team. You know what to expect,” Hedman said. ”You want to be at your best when you come to the playoffs. We battle for each other, and that’s paying off right now. We’ve got to keep that going.”
As usual, Triplets Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have been instrumental. After a frustrating injury riddled season, Johnson is once again leading the team with 13 points (4-9-13). He’s always on the puck and around the net. Kucherov killed the Islanders scoring four times, including a pair of game-tying goals that forced sudden death at Barclays Center. The biggest coming with 38.4 seconds left in Game 3 on a brilliant feed from Jonathan Drouin. Kucherov leads the postseason with nine goals. Palat only has four points so far but coach Jon Cooper plays him in every situation. He’s a fast skater and excellent fore-checker who is also used on the penalty kill with Johnson.
If there’s been a difference maker, it’s Drouin. After sitting out most of the year due to terrible advice from agent Allen Walsh due to his role, the 21-year old 2013 third overall pick has come back with a vengeance. In the playoffs, the play making pivot has eight assists. Second on the club behind Hedman. His nine points are tied for third with Hedman and Ranger killer Alex Killorn (3-6-9). Drouin has shown great patience and vision setting up Kucherov for the momentum shifting tying marker late in Game 3. He also made a nice no look backhand drop for a Hedman one-timer that made it 3-0 in Game 5 on the power play. Given his performance, I don’t see him going anywhere this summer.
Assuming they lose Stamkos, the Lightning are proving they can survive thanks to superior depth. Cooper can still play checkers Boyle and Callahan with the underrated Paquette on a third line. The overtime hero in Game 3, Boyle scored again yesterday. He made a nice play taking a puck off the boards between his legs and beating Isles’ goalie Thomas Greiss high far side. Boyle, who was never re-signing with the Rangers, has made them look bad. A gritty player who agitates opponents and delivers strong penalty kill work, the big man continues to step up his play in the postseason.With three goals so far, he now has 13 career playoff goals in his career. By comparison, Rick Nash has 12. Relax. We’re not comparing them. Just illustrating a point on how Boyle was more important to the Blueshirts than thought.
Tampa is back in a second consecutive Final Four due to their depth and experience from last year. Losing to the Blackhawks in six games, the pain is still there. They want to win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. Speaking of which, Ben Bishop recovered nicely from his Game 1 nightmare. After allowing four goals on 13 shots, he won four straight permitting six goals on 115 shots. That included a 28-save shutout on Sunday.
For the Islanders, Greiss did okay. Sure. He would like to have Kucherov’s second tying goal back. It beat him short side in the third period of Game 4. But he wasn’t at fault on either overtime winner. It was a clear case of his defense letting him down. He also had bad luck on Boyle’s Game 3 winner with a favorable carom off the back boards of a wide Hedman shot allowing Boyle to score. In Game 4, it was an extended Lightning shift spent in the Isles’ zone that resulted in Jason Garrison’s winner through traffic. On it, Greiss’ own teammate Calvin de Haan got caught in no man’s land, screening out his own goalie.
”It will sting for a long time, but you have to get over it,” Greiss said after making 21 saves.
In place of injured starter Jaroslav Halak, the 30-year old Greiss went 5-6-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Without his brilliant goaltending in out-performing Roberto Luongo in the six-game first round win, the Isles don’t break the drought of not advancing since ’93. Signed for one more year, Greiss remains a reliable backup who can step in for Halak if needed. With the club also boasting Jean-Francois Berube in the system, goaltending is the least of their problems.
The off-season will prove to be challenging for the organization. With both Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen able to test the market on July 1, President and GM Garth Snow has his work cut out. They have approximately $20 million to work with. Matt Martin is also unrestricted. You know they’d like to bring the popular banger back. Casey Cizikas is restricted and will get a bump up. Ryan Strome is also a Group II. He needs to improve his consistency. Shane Prince showed enough to be re-signed. He’s also a Group II. Steve Bernier is unrestricted and probably will leave. Alan Quine was a find. He’s restricted and should be back.
With the top six for the Isles currently under contract, the back end looks set. It’s just a question of whether Travis Hamonic backs off his trade demand. He wanted to be closer to home in Western Canada. But the team was unable to accommodate him. A strong puck moving defensive defenseman, he’s hard to move. Hamonic is signed for another three years with a good cap hit of $3.857 million. Hopefully, his mind is changed and he’ll return.
Islander fans will get to see more of Adam Pelech. The righty D with a big accurate shot. He looks to have a promising future. The blue line also has de Haan, Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and Thomas Hickey, who proved his toughness throughout the two rounds. Young Devon Toews is signed. A fourth round pick in 2014 from Quinnipiac, the 21-year old will turn pro.
If Snow is unable to re-sign both Nielsen and Okposo, the organization could look to young prospects Matthew Barzal and Michael Dal Colle. It’s Dal Colle who projects to be a big scorer. The kind who can take pressure off Tavares and balance the offense. A sore spot during the playoffs.
As for the coach, Jack Capuano proved he could guide the team to the second round. He remains a good coach who the players play hard for. Is he the right man to get the franchise back to being a serious playoff contender? That remains unanswered. After a 100-point season and winning a round, there’s no reason for him to not be in Brooklyn this Fall.
What must happen for the Islanders to improve is more contributions from support players. Brock Nelson had a quiet postseason with a goal and four helpers. He’ll need to be better. The Isles missed Anders Lee. A young player with good hands who remains a key part of the future.
It would be nice if Mikhail Grabovski could avoid the injury bug. You wonder what will be with his concussion history. A serious topic moving forward. He has two years left on a contract with an average cap hit of $5 million. Nikolay Kulemin also is signed two more years with an average of $4.19 million.
After Tavares, who paced the Isles with 11 points (6-5-11), Okposo was second with eight (2-6-8) and Nielsen was third with six (3-3-6). Okposo is four years younger than Nielsen. He has complemented Tavares on the top line. The Minnesota native earned $4.5 million in salary for ’15-16. At 28, he could get between six to seven million. Six years for $38.5 million seems fair.
As for Nielsen, he made $3.5 million. The 32-year old versatile two-way center can play top line or center the second line while playing power play and being dangerous on the PK where he scored two shorthanded goals. He’s the kind of player that’s easy to respect. He is older. So, how many years will he get? But plenty of teams can use a smart player who plays both ends with a scoring touch.
Nielsen is very valuable. But I wonder if the Isles will try to offer him a shorter term due to age. They also boast plenty of center depth. Josh Bailey could always take on that sort of role. But he seems better cast as a complementary winger who plays PK.
The Islanders will no doubt take this experience with them. They know they were close. But that doesn’t count. It’ll be an interesting summer in Brooklyn.