Three things we learned in the NHL: Reality setting in for Islanders

Watch as Jason Garrison gets a hold of a one-timer to score his first playoff overtime winner, putting the Lightning ahead 3-1 in their series against the Islanders.

There was only one game on the NHL schedule Friday night, but it was another overtime thriller. In fact, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center has hosted five Stanley Cup Playoffs games now and four of them have gone to an extra period. And while that was a great thing for the Islanders in the first round (2-0), they’ve gone 0-for-2 in the second round against the Lightning after dropping this one 2-1.

What did we learn Friday night? Here are three things:

Everyone knows New York Islanders force of nature Matt Martin is a beast. And that line — as Don Cherry said earlier this season — has got to be the best fourth line in all of hockey. They may be a depth option, but they wreak havoc whenever they’re out there.

Martin is the NHL’s current hit king, always at or near the top of the league in that stat at the end of the season. And in these playoffs, we’ve seen him throw his weight around and, of course, he’s now the post-season league leader.

Martin is also a pending UFA, coming off a contract that is paying him $1 million against the cap. With his reputation and how he’s shown in the playoffs so far, it’s left many people wondering what options Martin will have as a free agent this summer.

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On the one hand, yes, Martin is a big hitter and yes, that fourth line is one of the best in the league. But on the other, Martin doesn’t have a point in 10 games this post-season and he posted a career-high of just 19 points in the regular season.

Also worth considering, while lots of hitting seems nice and all, what does it actually mean? Teams that outhit their opponents by 10 or more don’t exactly have a great record in these playoffs.

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Teammate Cal Clutterbuck ($2.75 million) is also known for throwing tons of hits, but he plays significantly more on the penalty kill and is a bit more offensively inclined. Kyle Clifford ($1.6 million) and Dwight King ($1.95 million) of the Los Angeles Kings may be good comparisons, but they also signed those deals as RFAs (although Clifford’s deal will eat up a couple UFA years).

If the Islanders don’t sign Clifford and he does hit the UFA market, buyer beware. Don’t forget, he also racked up 119 penalty minutes this year. And as attractive as his hits are, those penalty minutes can be costly.

What is it worth to the Islanders to keep this line together? And is that cost going to be regrettable?

Despite leading for less than 30 minutes in their entire first round matchup against the Florida Panthers, New York advanced in six games and then took a 1-0 series lead on the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning. And, for at least a period if not more in Game 4, it looked as though they could tie this second round series with Tampa and make it a best-of-three.

New York looked so strong in the first period of Game 4. Heading into the first intermission they had recorded 16 shots and held the Lightning to zero shots for the last 12:05 of that period. Then, everything changed.

The Islanders stopped pressing as hard and got only 12 shots the rest of the way. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, turned up that pressure. The Islanders made the vital mistake of laying back and trying to back into a win instead of keeping up the pace and driving it home. That almost always comes back to bite a team and against a Lightning squad that has an endless amount of offensive weapons, it’s a ticking time bomb.

So why shouldn’t Nikita Kucherov be the one to tie it up? He’s another pending free agent (RFA) who has been making quite the name for himself these playoffs. Now with eight goals in nine playoff games, Kucherov is putting himself squarely in the Conn Smythe mix. And the Lightning became just the fourth team this playoff season to trail after two periods and come back for the win.

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So Kucherov is just 22 and coming up on his first opportunity to negotiate an NHL contract extension. This is just the third season he’s played in the playoffs for the Lightning.

And yet, he’s now third all-time in Lightning playoff goal scoring, passing teammate Tyler Johnson and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards.

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How can you defend this team right now? With Tyler Johnson scoring in spurts, Jonathan Drouin impressing everyone with his vision and feistiness, plus Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat waiting in the weeds (to say nothing of the defence’s capabilities to produce offence) the Lightning give their opponents more than enough to handle. And they’re not even fully healthy. On Friday, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported Steven Stamkos could return in the conference final. Yikes.

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Kucherov has certainly drawn a lot of attention for his offence in the playoffs, but in Game 4 he also showed his physical side by throwing a very rare open ice hit on Kyle Okposo. It looks clean, but there was also contact with the head (just not the principle point of contact). Don’t expect supplementary discipline here, but it’s certainly a situation worth monitoring ahead of Game 5.

A popular pick to be upset in the first round because of their injuries, the Lightning have looked like the team that reached the Stanley Cup final a year ago. And now that Stamkos and Anton Stralman could be returning in relatively short order, they may even be the favourites to come out of the East again.

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