The excitement was palpable. The first big game hosted by Nassau Coliseum in 28 years lived up to the hype. With the Islanders competing in the
Conference Finals Stanley Cup Semifinals for a second consecutive year outside the bubble, it gave Long Island fans a chance to be heard.
They were into it for Game 3 against the Lightning. The chants were loud at The Barn in Uniondale. The randomness of a packed crowd that was nearly 13,000 strong did their part. However, the Islanders weren’t quite able to deliver in a tough 2-1 home loss to the Bolts. Tampa Bay took back home ice by winning for the second straight time.
Now comes the true test for these scrappy Islanders, who fought back from the same predicament in the previous two rounds to beat Pittsburgh and Boston in six games. Basically, they responded to the challenge by running the table in Games 4-6 against the Penguins and Bruins. Can they do it versus a better team with a championship pedigree? We’ll have a better answer tomorrow night.
For the Isles to have success against the more skilled and equally stingy Lightning in this series rematch, they have to forecheck consistently and get enough traffic on Andrei Vasilevskiy to score the dirty goals they’re accustomed to. It would also help if the Killer Bees Line of Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey get going. With the exception of Nelson, both Bailey and Beauvillier have been quiet. Particularly Beauvillier, who found it tough to find space last night against the Lightning defense. He was blanketed.
There were only three goals scored for the second time in three games. But it was the Isles who had the better of it to take Game 1. The Lightning responded by taking Game 2 with a better effort to win 4-2 and tie the series. Last night, they withstood the expected good start from the Islanders, who fed off the crowd. With Vasilevskiy locked in making key saves, it allowed the Bolts to find their footing.
The game’s first goal was created off the doggedness of Blake Coleman. After gaining a step through the neutral zone, the former Devil got a shot on Semyon Varlamov and then outhustled the Isles to a rebound. From a tough angle, he sent a dish across for an open Yanni Gourde, who was able to bury the one-timer past an outstretched Varlamov for the lead. It was the second effort from Coleman that made the scoring play possible. If you’re going to beat the Islanders, you need that extra effort to win these games. It came from the gritty third line.
In the second period, the Islanders began to dictate the terms. Boosted by the Identity Line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, they forechecked effectively. Their hard hat style of physicality and tenacity gets the fans going. They buzzed around the Tampa net for several shifts. It would be a harbinger of things to come. While the second line was kept in check, Mat Barzal created some scoring chances from his superb speed and strong skating. He had a near miss on one shift with his shot whizzing just over the net. Barzal and Leo Komarov were good. The line of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac struggled for a second consecutive game. Expect Barry Trotz to reinsert Oliver Wahlstrom for Zajac in Game 4. They need his offense.
With the Islanders turning up the heat, they tilted the ice after being outshot 17-10. It was finally a strong shift from the Cizikas line that netted the tying goal. On what was a good cycle down low, they got a break. Under pressure during an extended shift in his zone, surprising Game 2 goal scorer Jan Rutta panicked with the puck. He attempted to tuck it into Vasilevskiy’s pads. However, it was not done well. Instead, the Tampa netminder couldn’t get a handle which allowed the loose puck to get through him for an unpredictable tying Islander goal. Clutterbuck was credited with it. It was not a good play by Rutta. Given how well Vasilevskiy was playing, it was probably the only way the Isles could’ve scored.
With the building rocking, the momentum was short lived. An Adam Pelech interference minor penalty gave the dangerous Bolts a power play with over two minutes left in the second period. Although they didn’t convert, the skilled Lightning kept moving the puck around until it came to Brayden Point in the slot. As the power play expired, he was able to get off a tough shot while taking a crosscheck. The shot beat Varlamov, who was dealing with Anthony Cirelli after Andy Greene shoved him into the crease from behind. He didn’t make contact. Even if he had, Point’s latest clutch goal probably would’ve been held up. Had Greene not pushed Cirelli, Varlamov had a chance to make the save. Instead, the puck squeaked through with 17.3 seconds remaining. A crusher.
That’s who Point is. He scores clutch goals. He did it during the Bolts’ run to their second Cup last summer. That included overtime winners against the Blue Jackets and Islanders, finishing both off. How good is he? Point scored for the sixth consecutive postseason game. The last player to accomplish that was Martin Havlat with Ottawa during the 2006. It’s Point who leads the ultra talented Lightning in goals. He gets it done. I’ve always been a big fan of his. A tremendous two-way pivot who is good at even strength, the power play and can kill penalties. He also wins face-offs. He remains a bit overlooked due to Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos.
The good news for the Islanders is they still had the third period to rally. They’ve proven they are capable of coming from behind this postseason. The big tying goals they scored in huge wins over the Pens and Bruins are proof. Facing the defending champs down a goal, it wasn’t as easy to get the looks needed to beat the unflappable Vasilevskiy. There’s a reason he’s up for another Vezina along with finalists Marc-Andre Fleury and Philipp Grubauer. Even though he didn’t have to stand on his head, Vasilevskiy made the big stops to help the Lightning protect the lead.
There were a few close calls. Barzal had one and Komarov got two good opportunities, but wasn’t able to finish. One was set up by Jordan Eberle, who’s been quiet so far. He will need to find twine soon. Believe it or not, Greene had two chances in tight. But the veteran defenseman was turned away by Vasilevskiy and then missed high. There weren’t enough pucks on the right Islander sticks.
With the crowd urging them on, they couldn’t quite draw even. The Lightning also have a good defensive structure. They bent, but didn’t break. In particular, Ryan McDonagh had a strong game. He was very good at breaking up plays in his end and in the neutral zone. We even saw flashes of the old McDonagh, who pinched in and went for the jugular with a high tester on Varlamov that he coolly gloved. The former Ranger has been very good this playoffs. He’s played with an edge and done a good job at five-on-five to relieve pressure from Victor Hedman.
A Kucherov forecheck bothered the Islanders, who were in full scramble mode to get Varlamov off for the extra attacker. You never had a sense the Isles would tie it. That’s how solid Tampa was at protecting a one-goal lead. They didn’t give them much. It was that gritty style that won them the Cup last year. While it’s easy to highlight the stars who we all know, it was the attention to detail that won this game. They matched the Isles’ work ethic and quieted the crowd. No small feat. That’s why they’re defending champs.
It’ll take a lot more from the Islanders to even the series. We know the fans will be going nuts. They will try to will their heroes to a Game 4 victory like they did the previous rounds. The atmosphere at Nassau Coliseum is like that of a soccer game. With random chants and stuff you don’t see in other arenas. That is a credit to the Islander fan. Even if there are some bandwagon fans like just about every team, they’re very loud and are truly a factor. You wonder though if that even affects the Lightning. They are tough. It will not be easy.
For the Islanders to tie the series and possibly avoid playing the last game at The Barn, they need better performances from Beauvillier, Bailey and Palmieri. Pageau is playing banged up. He still looked okay yesterday. However, he’s a key shooter and reliable face-off guy who can be a factor. We know he goes to the net and can get the dirty goals. If Wahlstrom returns tomorrow, he’ll replace Zajac on that third line with Palmieri. Wahlstrom is a great shooter who can add a weapon to the power play. The Isles can use his offense. They’ll also need Barzal to continue to hit the score sheet. When he does, they’re pretty successful.
If there’s an Achilles heel, it’s that the defense doesn’t contribute enough offense. Ryan Pulock scored his first goal of the playoffs in Game One. That turned out to be the game-winner. Pulock has a good shot and has provided offense before. But he hasn’t been as consistent. Nick Leddy is a good skating D who can get involved. But it’s usually on passing. Scott Mayfield can shoot the puck if he has time. He can hit the net. Pelech is a shutdown D whose primary role is to check opposing scorers. He isn’t accurate from the point. Noah Dobson is probably the future of the Islanders’ blue line offense. He’s picked up some assists, but isn’t good defensively. He was beat by Coleman on the Goodrow goal. Greene is a defensive defenseman who blocks shots. It’s a bonus if he creates any offense.
Where as the Islanders don’t have that one offensive weapon from the back end, the Bolts boast the imposing Hedman, who’s put up most of his points on the power play. A superb skater who can be counted on for big minutes at five-on-five, power play and penalty kill, the former Norris winner and Conn Smythe winner is a player to be reckoned with. He’s not 100 percent. But he is a gamer. McDonagh doesn’t put up as much offense anymore. But he still pinches effectively and can contribute. Mikhail Sergachev hasn’t done much offensively despite being a superb skater. If he gets going, it could be lights out. Cernak and Rutta are not asked to contribute offensively. But you already have seen Rutta score a big goal in this series. David Savard was a good pickup from Columbus due to his penchant for blocking shots
Goaltending hasn’t been an issue. Varlamov has performed well. But he’s matched up against Vasilevskiy. He’ll probably have to steal a game in order for the Islanders to pull the upset. You have two of the game’s best coaches in Barry Trotz and Jon Cooper. Trotz will make adjustments for Game 4. Cooper is good at the chess match. He definitely has the pulse of his team.
Game 4 should be interesting. Especially with the Isles in the same predicament as the prior two rounds. Can they rise up and do it again? We shall see.
As for other hockey related news, Rod Brind’Amour won the Jack Adams as Coach of the Year after re-signing with the Hurricanes. It’s where he wants to be. A well deserved honor for one of the game’s good guys. More awards will continue to be revealed. The big ones likely coming next week.