What separates this Tampa Bay Lightning team from the other really good teams they’ve had over the last few seasons? Their ability to adapt their game and win in different ways. Wednesday’s 2-1 win against the New York Islanders was a perfect showcase of that.
They won Game One using their skill and blew the Islanders off the ice. In Game Two they dug deep into their roster and gutted out a 2-1 win despite playing the game with just nine forwards. One of those missing players happened to be their best one - Brayden Point.
It was Nikita Kucherov providing the heroics, one-timing a puck past Semyon Varlamov in the fading seconds of the game. He’ll get the headlines, but the whole team chipped in, either by blocking shots, or killing penalties, or taking hits to clear the puck, that led to this win.
Oh, and having a Vezina-winning goaltender as your last line of defense helps as well.
There was no doubt that the Islanders wanted to come out early and establish a much different pace than Game One. The best way to do it would be by scoring early and that’s what they managed to do it. The goal came from an unlikely source - the Islanders fourth line.
Matt Martin received a pass from behind the Lightning net and fluttered a shot (it looked like it might have clipped off of Tyler Johnson’s stick) that went over Andrei Vasilevskiy’s shoulder. Just ninety seconds into the game and the Lightning were down a goal.
The Islanders kept the pressure on and the majority of the play was in the Lightning zone. There was a brief bit of hope when Barclay Goodrow managed a partial breakaway. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to get much on his shot as he was hounded on his way to the net. Semyon Varlamov made the easy save.
Then Alex Killorn did a dumb, dangerous thing.
There was no need for that hit and he committed it in a dangerous place, evidenced by the way Brock Nelson’s head bounced off of the glass. Nelson headed down the tunnel after the hit and didn’t return until the second period. Killorn was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
The Islanders sensed a chance to put the game away early. They didn’t count on Vasilevskiy showing why he’s one of the best netminders in the game. He stopped all five shots he faced including a tough one right off the initial face-off. It would be nice to say that the Lightning gained some momentum off of the penalty kill, but they really didn’t as the Islanders continued to dictate the play.
A power play came and went for the Lightning without much of a threat and it looked like they might limp into the break down a goal. In a complete turnaround from Game One, the Lightning weren’t getting any shots on net.
Then came Victor Hedman. After Devon Toews was a stride short in dumping the puck into the Lightning zone, which resulted in an icing, the Lightning won the face-off. The puck came back to the Big Swede and he laced a wormburner that eluded all of the legs in front of the net and clipped the inside of the post just past Varlamov’s skate.
The teams exchanged some headlocks as the final whistle sounded, but the Lightning had to be more than relieved to head to the locker room tied. The shot board was a bit tilted thanks to the five minute power play for the Islanders, but at 5v5 things were a bit closer with the Islanders holding just a 15-13 edge in shot attempts while both teams had 2 high danger chances.
In the middle frame the play descended into what many thought it would be all series long - a grind. Checks were finished, prime scoring opportunities were limited, and the Lightning lost another forward for a significant portion of the game.
Brock Nelson did return (only to get stapled into the boards again) while it was Brayden Point leaving early. After taking a big hit along the boards at the end of the first, Point only played a few shifts in the second before heading back to the locker room.
There was a fight (Luke Schenn and Matt Martin exchanged a few blows), failed power plays for both teams, and relatively few shots on net (13 total). The Islanders best chances came early in the period when Jordan Eberle found himself alone in front of Vasy but wasn’t able to get a clean shot off of a centering pass. A few minutes later, Josh Bailey had a split second to fire a clean shot off in front of the Lightning netminder, but ripped it high.
For the Lightning, there wasn’t much available to them as the Islanders were very aggressive at attacking the points and forced more shots wide than they did in Game One. Pat Maroon did get some space in front of Varlamov but was stoned by the veteran netminder (Maroon was then cross-checked into the net by Nelson).
The Lightning started things off with an early power play. With two key ingredients missing (Point and Killorn) Coach Cooper put Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Hedman together. It didn’t help.
Play continued the way it had been in the second: blocked shots, deflected passes, and general low-event hockey. The Lightning did their best to make it slightly more exciting by taking back-to-back penalties midway through. The Islanders racked up the shots, but couldn’t put one past Andrei Vasilevskiy.
On the other end, the Lightning just couldn’t sustain any pressure consistently or find a way to get the puck on Varlamov. With time ticking down, it looked like it would be yet another overtime game for the Lightning. Which, with only nine forwards, would have been really interesting.
Sometimes just one really good shift can win a game. The Lightning waited until there was just 19 seconds left on the clock. It started with Yanni Gourde firing a shot that Varlamov had to fend off. Ondrej Palat had a second chance. Then it looked like the Islanders might be able to clear it, but the Lightning forced a turnover. Ryan McDonagh pinched in along the boards and fired a pass through the center of the ice, right onto the stick of Nikita Kucherov. The best player on the ice didn’t miss as he wristed it by his fellow countryman to put the Lightning up by one goal with just nine seconds left on the clock.
What a finish.
- My three stars:
3. Nikita Kucherov. He played well all night long and with the game on his stick didn’t miss.
2. Andrei Vasilevskiy. Calm, confident and simply the best goaltender left in the playoffs. He didn’t make his usual plethora of ten-bell saves, but he stopped just about everything thrown his way and was excellent in controlling any rebounds.
1. The Penalty Kill. They killed off a five-minute major and a five-on-three. The Islanders may have piled up some shots with the extra skaters, but a lot of them were from distance.
- This loss could be more damaging to the Islanders mindset than the 8-2 blowout. While the 5v5 play was closer than the shot clock (or the NBC broadcast) indicated, the Islanders should have won that game. They had the Lightning down to nine forwards for more than half of the game. They had the edge in power plays and were even in 5v5, but they couldn’t get it done.
- The Killorn hit was dangerous and dumb. Will he get a call from the league? Most likely, but who knows if they suspend him or not. There were more blatantly aggressive hits in the Boston series that didn’t result in a suspension, but this is the NHL and supplementary discipline is a crapshoot. If he’s suspended a game, I wouldn’t complain.
- This was one of the best wins in the playoffs for the Lightning. The odds were stacked against them and the Islanders were bringing the physicality. Tampa Bay bent a little, but stuck with their game plan. They minimized the retaliation and just played on. In the end, their talent gave them a chance and they capitalized.