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Morning After Thoughts: Unforced errors short-circuit Lightning in Game 1, but no reason to panic

The Isles may have won, but the Lightning aren’t going to back down.

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

The type of game played in yesterday’s 2-1 loss was to be expected: a tight-checking, low-scoring, grinding game that doesn’t see any game-breaking moments unless unforced errors occur. The New York Islanders managed to avoid those kinds of errors yesterday afternoon. The Tampa Bay Lightning failed to do so. Now, the defending champs face their first series deficit since Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

“We dropped a few last year in the playoffs as well, including in the final,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’re fine in this position. It’s not ideal. They did what we’ve done to teams so far and get one on the road for them, so we’ve got to respond with another game at home in front of our fans, and then we’ll take it from there.”

There shouldn’t be any panic in the Lightning dressing room, they’ve earned that kind of mentality and approach, but there was clearly something off in their decision-making in Game 1. It’s unclear what ailed them throughout the game, but the Lightning struggled to connect on passes, maintain offensive zone pressure, exit the defensive zone cleanly, and execute their game plan.

The Islanders deserve credit for doing what the Lightning have done so often to teams these playoffs; suffocate into submission. Tampa Bay doesn’t get enough credit for how strong they are defensively, and last night wasn’t a terrible showing on that end. However, poor puck management doomed them. That poor puck control was highlighted by Stamkos’ turnover, which led to the Islanders’ first goal by Mathew Barzal.

“I’m trying to make a play there, and you see what happens,” Stamkos said. “It can be the difference in the game. I need to be better in that situation.”

From an analytical perspective, this game looks like it was Tampa Bay’s to lose. According to Natural Stat Trick, in all situations, it was Tampa Bay with the edge in nearly every category (shot attempts 55-45, scoring chances 38-27, high danger chances 14-10, and an expected goals rate of 54 percent). However, this doesn’t tell the whole story; at 5v5, the Lightning only controlled shot attempts (38-35) and scoring chances (29-20). The Islanders led in high danger chances (9-8), which is misleading because New York led 9-6 before reverting to their patented trap to close the game out in the third period, and in expected goals at 53 percent. And, to cap it off, the Islanders gave nothing off the rush.

It’s too far to say New York dominated Game 1, but they definitely had the edge. Normally, that edge isn’t an issue for the Lightning, but unforced errors did them no favors and nearly got them shut out before Brayden Point’s late power-play goal in regulation.

“Our work ethic was there. Our compete was there. Our minds weren’t there,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Some of our decisions were poor. That’s what happens; you get this deep into the playoffs, there’s only four teams left, you have to have everything working in unison, and we just weren’t quite there tonight.”

I was asked after the game, “On a scale of 0 to Tuukka Rask after a shootout, how irritated are you with the game?” My answer was four—slightly annoyed. Anyone expecting a repeat of Game 1 from last year’s Eastern Conference Final was kidding themselves (Tampa Bay won 8-2). The Islanders had a feeling of happy to be there last year while coming off a hard seven game series and traveling on their one off day between the series; this year, they look far more motivated and locked in. They want revenge for their only postseason loss over the past two years, and they’ve drawn first blood.

“This team definitely defends really well,” Alex Killorn said. “They have a great neutral zone. Their D sag. They play so tight in the zone. Even though we have the puck for a large amount of time, it’s tough to get really a high-chance scoring opportunity. But these are all adjustments we’ll make, just like we did against Florida and just like we did against Carolina.”

Killorn’s mentality is correct. The Lightning made it out of a monstrous Central division against two teams they didn’t have a winning record against during the regular season. Yet, they adjusted, and never lost back-to-back games, and smothered their opponents to close the series out. The Islanders pose a different threat, a team with a proven coach in Barry Trotz, a solid (not necessarily top end) forward corps, a stifling approach on defense complimented by some very underrated defensemen, and a goaltender, who might be streaky, but has shown he can perform in the playoffs in Semyon Varlamov.

The Isles are not going to step down.

“The Islanders do what they do, and they do it extremely well,” Cooper said. “We saw it. Now it’s our job to pick it apart.”

Tampa Bay’s coaching staff has picked teams apart in the past, and there is little reason to believe they can’t do it again. That said, the first order of business is to cut out the turnovers and win puck battles—an area where Tampa Bay was weak at in Game 1.

Forget Game 1, reset, refocus, and get back to Lightning hockey.

Extra Thought

  • Semyon Varlamov was very complimentary of Andrei Vasilevskiy during his post-game comments calling him the best goalie in the NHL. They’re both Russians and played together on Team Russia for the World Cup of Hockey in 2016. If NHL players go to the Olympics next year, Vasilevskiy is almost guaranteed to be the starter for Team Russia, but Varlamov has played well enough in recent years to be considered as a veteran back-up if he can beat out a couple of youngsters that will vie for spots