Game 4 was there for the taking for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The opening 20 minutes saw them control the run of play and push the New York Islanders back; however, there was one fatal flaw that riddled the Lightning throughout the game that eventually came back to bite them—turnovers.
In the first period, New York had three good chances on Andrei Vasilevskiy; all three came off turnovers by the Lightning. Luckily, the Islanders hit two posts and saw a shorthanded breakaway on Leo Komarov's stick. One would think the Lightning would tighten up their puck management as the game progressed—that thought process proved to be wrong as the Lightning collapsed in the second period in what was their worst period of playoff hockey since 2019.
“You realize how precious every period is, every shift is,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s one of those things if you bend, you can’t break, and that second period, we broke. It was self-inflicted.”
The Lightning valiantly surged back in the third period with goals by Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson to make things interesting but trying to crawl out of a three-goal deficit against a stout Islanders team evoked feelings of Sisyphus—even with Ryan McDonagh’s last-second backhand that saw Ryan Pulock thwart the Lightning’s last-ditch effort to tie the game in regulation.
“I’m proud of the guys for the push in the third,” Cooper said, “We were a save away from still playing right now.”
While the sentiment is nice from the head coach, the reality is Tampa Bay wasn’t good enough outside the first period. New York downright dominated them in the second period. According to Natural Stat Trick, shot attempts were 28-16, shots 17-9, scoring chances 18-9, high danger chances, 7-2, and expected goals were 69 percent—all in New York’s favor.
The third period was far more even than the boxscore would have you believe. The only area where the Lightning had firm control was in shot volume, but their quality barely pushed them over 50 percent in expected goals. For a team that has back-to-back championships on their mind, they need to be far better than they were Saturday night.
“I think we didn’t execute,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “They were the better team. You give up three goals in a period, it’s not good enough. We pushed in the third, but we shouldn’t be in that position to start with.”
Hedman’s sentiment is correct, the Lightning shouldn’t have been in that position, but it’s difficult for any team to maintain consistent offensive pressure when their best players drop the ball. Tampa Bay’s top line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov was bad in Game 4.
Their metrics were far below what’s expected of them; out-attempted 12-10, outshot 9-5, out-chanced 6-5, out-scored 1-0, and their combined expected goals were 40 percent. Those numbers might not paint as ugly a picture as expected, but this doesn’t account for the litany of turnovers committed by the trio. Kucherov specifically was ineffective all evening as every puck he touched resulted in a negative play.
Point, who has been magnificent this series (and postseason), had the worst playoff game of his career, even considering his 12th goal of the postseason. Mat Barzal’s goal was 100% on Point for being in no man's land and not picking the Islanders’ center up. The most infuriating part? Seconds before the goal, Point looks at Barzal and still doesn’t shift towards him. Stick or no stick, not even attempting to cover him is inexcusable.
To add, Point was the reason why Matt Martin’s goal eventually happened. Point turned the puck over in the defensive zone after scrambling to get rid of the puck as Cal Clutterbuck forechecked him.
The puck, which was intended for Kucherov in the right faceoff circle, trickled to the point where New York pushed play directly back in before Martin scores on a backhand to give the Islanders a three-goal lead. For a player of Point’s caliber, these mistakes shouldn’t happen.
There is cause for optimism, though; the Lightning is 11-0 after a loss in the past two postseasons. They’ve bounced back from poor losses before and have shown the resiliency to push back. It’s what led them to a Stanley Cup less than a year ago.
However, the context of this series is different. Tampa Bay has jumped to a 3-1 series lead in their previous six series and had a clear edge. There is no clear edge against New York this time around. Through four games, both teams are tied at seven goals apiece at 5v5, and the Islanders only surrendered two power-plays in Games 3 and 4.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the expected goals battle has been firmly in the Islanders corner at 56 percent. There is clearly something not fully clicking for the Lightning, and they’re now in a best-of-three situation with home-ice advantage at stake—they better figure it out quickly.
- The Lightning must adapt better as games progress. They were quick to alter things in their championship run. Still, this postseason, especially in losses, it appears Tampa Bay reverts to their “stick to the gameplan” mantra that frustrated fans throughout the years.
- Vasilevskiy wasn’t his best in Game 4. The rebound leading to Barzal’s goal was uncharacteristic of the Big Cat. The Bailey and Martin goals also felt like shots that Vasilevskiy normally stops. Luckily, we know Vasilevskiy will bounce back from a poor showing.
- If Tampa Bay gets out of this series and into the Stanley Cup Final, we might see Point break his own record for goal scoring in a single postseason. He’s two goals away from last year’s mark of 14, and if he keeps up his scoring streak, he might tie it before this series wraps up.
- The Lightning power-play has been scorching hot this post-season, but their 5-on-5 play has underwhelmed this postseason. Yes, they played two teams that tilt the shot volume in their favor by shooting from nearly every possible area, but something has to be said about the difference between the last playoffs and these playoffs. According to Natural Stat Trick, at 5-on-5, the Lightning is getting out-attempted 622-681, out-shot 347-374, and out-chanced 337-348. They’re barely break even in goal scoring 26-23 but have maintained an edge in high danger chances 133-120. What has saved them at 5-on-5 is goaltending, with Vasilevskiy sporting a .938 at 5-on-5. Only one active team has gotten better goaltending at 5-on-5 with a .939—the Islanders.