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Morning After Thoughts: Lightning’s top players have been driving the bus all postseason

Your best players have to be your best players.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders - Game Four Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay Lightning are a good hockey team. They’re likely the deepest and most talented group, on paper, left in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They’ve received timely scoring, solid defensive play, and consistently great goaltending throughout the postseason. Above all else, the Lightning’s best players have been making statements in every series and refusing to allow any other top line to wrest control away from them.

The Columbus line spearheaded by Pierre-Luc Dubois? Outplayed by the Point line.

The dreaded “Perfection Line” out of Boston? Outgunned by the Point line.

Now, the Islanders’ best headlined by Mat Barzal? Not on the same level as the Point line.

“You can’t give them an inch,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said about the Point line. “And we’ve given them too many inches.”

The top line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov has dominated this series. When that trio is on the ice at 5v5, they have out attempted (28-18), out shot (20-8), out chanced (17-11), out scored (5-0), generated more high danger chances (7-3), and generated better quality (xGF% 68 percent) than the Islanders.

At times, it feels like the top line is putting on a clinic.

The transition from one zone to another, the controlled entry, the passing, the ability to draw multiple defenders to free up space, and the finish is something to marvel at. This trio wasn’t done with just one goal under their belts last night though.

“He just does all the things that are unnoticed but a line doesn’t survive without him,” Cooper said. “He doesn’t get the attention that some of the other guys he plays with, but you need a Palat on your line.”

At least one player from the top line has scored in every game this series. Combining this with the scoring depth that Tampa Bay boasts has made life a match up nightmare for the Islanders.

New York was never going to be able to match Tampa Bay’s top line in a head-to-head match up, but New York’s depth was supposed to pose an equal battle for the Lightning.

It hasn’t been as equal as New York hoped. Through four games, Tampa Bay has been in control of this series. At 5v5, the Lightning have out-attempted (177-152), out-shot (96-76), outscored (11-6), generated better quality (xGF% 54 percent), and generated more high danger chances (45-35), than the Islanders. The only area where the Islanders have a marginal advantage is in scoring chances (83-80).

New York only has six skaters who have out-attempted Tampa Bay at 5v5. Those six are Ross Johnston (20-7 in 14 minutes of ice time), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (47-35 in 48 minutes of ice time), Cal Clutterbuck (37-30 in 37 minutes of ice time), Matt Martin (40-37 in 41 minutes of ice time), Derrick Brassard (21-20 in 25 minutes of ice time), and Scott Mayfield (53-53 in 63 minutes of ice time). All of the forwards listed have been outscored while on the ice so far in the series but Mayfield is an exception. With him on the ice, the Isles have managed to outscore the Lightning.

There are even fewer skaters (three) for New York that have outscored the Lightning at 5v5, and those three players, Brock Nelson (3-2), Nick Leddy (2-1), and Mayfield (4-3), aren’t enough to beat a team as good as Tampa Bay.

The biggest factor in the Islanders offense being shut down is Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning goaltender has been fantastic in the playoffs this year. In this series, he has a .930 save percentage and have made some fantastic saves to keep New York off the scoreboard.

Overall, Vasilevskiy has been a wall for Tampa Bay with a 13-4 record (round robin included), a .930 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average (admittedly, this stat is more of a team stat). More importantly, he’s found a groove at the perfect time.

And we haven’t even started talking about the player who is quietly having a magnificent postseason: Victor Hedman. We already know how good the 2019 Norris Trophy winner is, but what he’s done this postseason cannot be understated. In 17 games, he has out attempted (471-372), out shot (233-197), out scored (28-10), out chanced (213-187), generated better quality (xGF% 55 percent), and has been a workhorse playing 437 minutes (25 minutes a night) in all situations.

Hedman is third on the team in goals (seven) with many coming at critical junctures: series winner against Boston, two momentum swinging goals against New York, a game winner against Columbus in Game 3. The Big Swede’s impact cannot be denied and on several occasions, he’s been the best player on the ice.

It’s thanks to the heavy lifting of these five players that Tampa Bay is within one win of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in franchise history, and second time in five years. The Lightning are going to lean on them even more if they want to end this post season the way they want.