It’s an off day for the Eastern Conference Final that’s being played in the Edmonton bubble. While the Islanders and Lightning get a break, the Western Conference Final continues tonight with Game Three between the Stars and Golden Knights.
That series is tied at one apiece. Having split a pair with both Anton Khudobin and Robin Lehner pitching shutouts, Dallas and Vegas will battle for every square inch of ice. Do the Stars have enough offense to match the Golden Knights? They’ll need more out of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov. You can’t win games 1-0 against the kind of heavy forecheck the Knights bring.
As we set the table for that game, the Islanders find themselves in a predicament they haven’t faced this postseason. They trail the Lightning 2-0 in the best of seven series. As bad as Game One was in which they got humiliated 8-2 with both Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov each going for five points with the Lightning skating circles around them, the way they lost the second game could come back to haunt them.
You can’t play much better than the Islanders did last night. They had it all working early. Matt Martin scored 1:24 in on a Nick Leddy feed. It was his fifth of this NHL Playoffs. Or as many as he had in 55 regular season games. Martin has been one of the best players during this run for Barry Trotz. He plays that hard-nosed, physical, in your face game that works best during the postseason. Ditto for Cal Clutterbuck, who delivered a blow to Tampa by injuring Point in the second period on Wednesday night.
The issue for the Isles is they didn’t capitalize on some huge opportunities. Most notably a five-minute major on Alex Killorn boarding Brock Nelson. He was assessed a game misconduct for the hit from behind. Killorn won’t play in Game Three. The NHL Department of Player Safety suspended him for a game. I probably wouldn’t have. I think they should’ve given Barclay Goodrow a game instead for his dangerous high hit on Nelson later on. That was left alone.
For the Isles, they failed miserably on special teams. They were unable to cash in on the Killorn major penalty. That wasn’t the only chance either. With the game all tied at one and hanging in the balance during a tightly contested third period, a tacky hooking minor on Cedric Paquette handed them a 38 second five-on-three. With both Paquette and Ryan McDonagh in the penalty box instead of helping kill the penalties, Trotz used his timeout to keep the top power play unit out.
However, the three man penalty kill unit that featured Victor Hedman, Zach Bogosian and Anthony Cirelli outworked the Isles power play that featured Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Nelson and Ryan Pulock. After a early Hedman clear on a superb read, Erik Cernak came on. Once McDonagh returned, it was a five-on-four. The Islanders got nothing. That was the game.
After outshooting the Bolts 13-4 in a strong first, they only found themselves tied due to Hedman bombing a point shot off a key Goodrow face-off win at 18:25. The culprit was Devon Toews, who didn’t gain the red line to avoid icing the puck. Those defensive draws can kill you. They came out even in a period they controlled.
Aside from some rough stuff which included Martin fighting Luke Schenn and mixing it up with Pat Maroon, the rest of the game will be played on even terms. Even without Killorn and eventually Point on what looked an accidentally on purpose cheap shot from Clutterbuck (just as much as Goodrow on Nelson in the third), the Lightning didn’t cave. Coach Jon Cooper has gone with a 11 forward, 7 defensemen alignment. That meant he was down to nine forwards. It didn’t matter.
The shots favored the Bolts 17-15 in the second and third. That included 11-8 in the final period. One which seemed destined for overtime. Especially after the Isles failed so badly on the two-man advantage. Neither goalie budged. Andrei Vasilevskiy was locked in finishing with 27 saves. Semyon Varlamov recovered from giving up five in relief of Game One starter Thomas Greiss. He turned aside 19 of 21 in a hard luck loss.
Let’s be honest. It was crushing. For a defensive minded team that prides itself on shutting things down, they blew it. First, Varlamov had to contend with Yanni Gourde on a breakaway that just missed. Then a dangerous rebound. A brutal giveaway from the normally reliable Andy Greene proved costly.
That led directly to a pinching McDonagh threading the needle across the grain to Kucherov, who beat a sprawled Varlamov upstairs with over nine seconds remaining in regulation. His sixth goal of this postseason was particularly damaging.
It put the Islanders in an 0-2 hole. They must win Game Three tomorrow night. They should have an advantage with Killorn and likely Point out. So, the series is far from over. However, they must find more offense against the stingy Vasilevskiy, who’s proving why he’s a Vezina winner. Especially yesterday. Ask the Bruins about it.
Tampa also defends harder than they did a year ago. They play edgier. Ever since they overcame the Blue Jackets to avenge last year’s first round shocker, they’ve been very tough on the opposition. They’re not relying on their talent. They’re getting the jersey dirty and pulling out close games like last night.
This is an uphill climb for the Isles. Not impossible. But it’ll still be tough. We’ll see what they’re made of on Saturday.