Lightning put Islanders on the brink

For more than half of Game Four, the Islanders were in position to even their best-of-seven series against the heavy favorite Lightning. Semyon Varlamov had made some big saves to keep a strong Bolts surge off the scoreboard. He certainly did his part.

Brock Nelson continued his superb postseason. After getting the game-winner late in Game Three, the key second line center skated around three Tampa players into open space before picking his spot over Andrei Vasilevskiy’s glove for a beautiful opening goal at 11:27 of a better second period for the Islanders. Josh Bailey picked up the lone assist to pad his team-leading scoring total to 20 points including 18 helpers.

Things were falling into place for Barry Trotz’s gritty and resilient team to level the Eastern Conference Final at two apiece. They had the momentum following a wild 5-3 victory on Friday night in which Nelson scored the clutch winner with 3:25 left in regulation to offset a two goal Lightning rally. Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored into a open net while taking a slash from a frustrated Nikita Kucherov, which led to some pleasantries exchanged from each side. That included Matt Martin avenging Nelson by quickly defeating Barclay Goodrow in a scrap.

There is no love lost between these teams, which is the way it should be at this point. You had Cal Clutterbuck injure Brayden Point in Game Two on a not so incidental play that kept the top Bolts center out of Game Three. You saw the Lightning target Nelson with Goodrow catching the center with a dangerous high crosscheck that could’ve resulted in a suspension. Alex Killorn served a game for boarding Nelson from behind. He was back along with Point for the rare Sunday 3 PM matinee in a huge game.

These are strange times. So, the NHL and NBC agreed to have the Islanders and Lightning play Game Four as NFL Week One was in full swing. It was either that or go up against the Sunday night game between the Cowboys and Rams. There are so many sports happening due to the pandemic. You have plenty of baseball along with NBA Playoffs. Plus a very good five set men’s final won by a cramping Dominic Thiem over Alex Zverev at the US Open. The golf version of the Open begins on Thursday.

It’s beyond odd to have the Stanley Cup Playoffs still going as Fall approaches. That’s how it is following a four-plus month layoff. The hockey has still been compelling. The Isles played their way in by besting the Panthers. Then followed it up with a five game win over the Caps and seven game triumph over top seed Philadelphia. Maybe those extra two games they had to play have hurt them in this round.

It felt like once Nelson scored his team best ninth of the playoffs for a 1-0 lead, the Islanders could actually turn this series into a best of three. They sure had to feel good on the bench following Nelson’s great individual effort. But things sure changed in a hurry.

Like a Lightning bolt, Tampa Bay struck back twice within a 12-second span to flip the script. First, on a strange play where Yanni Gourde lofted a long seeing eye pass to towards the Islanders blueline, former Devil Blake Coleman was able to get to the puck, keep it onside and avoid Varlamov’s poke check to tuck a backhand into a open net. That play came only 15 seconds after the Nelson goal.

What happened next was stunning. Jon Cooper sent his ever dangerous top line out. It didn’t take long for the cohesive trio to turn the Isles inside out for what proved to be the crushing game decider from Ondrej Palat at 11:54. It was a work of art between Point and Kucherov, who received a pass and drew two Isles before making a no look backhand feed for a cutting Palat for the sweet finish past a helpless Varlamov. Magical stuff.

That’s the kind of unique skill they possess. It happened that quickly. The way they’re playing, it’s hard to see the Isles rallying from a 3-1 series deficit. They’ll give it the old college try. You know a Trotz coached club won’t quit starting Tuesday night in Edmonton. They’ll have to do better than one goal on Vasilevskiy, who’s an elite goalie that boasts a Vezina. They were outplayed for a large portion yesterday.

Despite a better played second in which they out-chanced the Lightning 10-7, they found themselves trailing by a goal after 40 minutes. Vasilevskiy made an awkward stop on Nelson, who had the Tampa goalie down. But his high short side shot wouldn’t go. The Bolts netminder was able to make the save. He also denied Mat Barzal and Bailey on a rebound in tight. Barzal has created opportunities, but isn’t scoring. He hasn’t been enough of a factor in this series. That must change if the Isles are to save their season.

In the third, Point finished off another nice passing play started by Kucherov and then Palat, who made a perfect centering pass for the Lightning center in front. After a sliding Varlamov denied him pointblank, Point was able to tuck a backhand stuff in for the crucial insurance marker at 3:33. For a player who didn’t look good exiting the second period of Game Two on the Clutterbuck hit, he sure didn’t show any aftereffects. He was on Point recording a goal and assist while going plus-two with five shots and seven of ten face-off wins in 18:24. He’s been the driving force behind the Lightning run.

The Isles didn’t go away, but never were able to get that second goal by Vasilevskiy, who finished with 26 saves. As for counterpart Varlamov, he did well in stopping 32 of 35. None of the goals were his fault. In fact, his brilliant play in a lopsided first kept the Isles in it. This could’ve been uglier than the 4-1 final score with Pat Maroon tallying a backhand into a vacated Isles net with 2:24 remaining.

So, it’s the very focused Bolts a win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. They’ve played with a purpose this whole postseason. Perhaps overcoming the Blue Jackets the way they did by winning one goal games with Point playing both the five overtime hero in Game One and the ultimate one in the first OT of Game Five, was the perfect way to set the tone. They haven’t needed injured star center Steven Stamkos, who remains out indefinitely. They even overcame a injury that forced Ryan McDonagh out of a few games in their five game conquest of the Bruins in the second round.

Cooper’s 11 forward, 7 defensemen alignment that includes Luke Schenn and Erik Cernak, continues to be successful. Former Rangers McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk have been a key part of it for a team that added grit by getting Zach Bogosian off waivers after Buffalo didn’t have any use for him. He’s definitely fit in well. Maybe playing on a much better roster is why. It doesn’t hurt to have Victor Hedman anchoring the back end.

The question going into Game Five is what do the Islanders have left. They play balls out under Trotz, who rolls four lines and six D. He lost Casey Cizikas, who left the bubble for a undisclosed reason. So too did vet Tom Kuhnackl. Ross Johnston played in Cizikas’ place. Maybe that changes for the Isles’ second elimination game. They were very successful in a dominant 4-0 shutout over the Flyers last round.

This is a different animal. We’ll see what they are made of. The winner could be seeing the pesky Stars, who have used the brilliant goaltending of Anton Khudobin to take a 3-1 lead on the suddenly punchless Golden Knights. Joe Pavelski has again showed his clutch playoff form. I’m not convinced that series ends tonight. Vegas has more talent and depth. We’ll see what happens later.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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