When the New York Islanders aren’t making it hard on the opposition, they make it hard on themselves.
For the third straight playoff series, the Islanders dropped serve on home ice, losing 2-1 Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning after splitting the first two games of the Stanley Cup semifinal in Florida.
The Islanders did the same thing in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins and again last round against the Boston Bruins, dropping Game 3 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum after bringing the series home at 1-1.
In both those cases, New York steadied itself and rattled off three straight wins to advance in six games. The Penguins and Bruins are excellent National Hockey League teams, but the Lightning are on another level. Tampa didn’t win the Stanley Cup last fall by accident.
Sure, the Lightning have mesmerizing skill at the top of the lineup, but the team also knows how to defend in front of the world’s best goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and can close out 2-1 games. Tampa has a pile of experience and guile. There is a steeliness to the Lightning.
These are also traits that helped the Islanders get this far, but now they need something more. New York coach Barry Trotz said he was left “wanting” after the Islanders lost Game 2 4-2 in Tampa on Tuesday, and although he didn’t repeat that assessment on Thursday, his team again wasn’t at its best.
The 12,978 Long Island fanatics, who celebrate each additional playoff game at the Coliseum before the Islanders relocate slightly west next season, didn’t have much to scream about. Their team failed to fuel their energy, falling behind halfway through a first period in which the Islanders looked slow and nervy. The Lightning led for 47 of the final 50 minutes and have regained serve in the series. Game 4 is Saturday.
A FEW NO-SHOWS
The Islanders advanced past the Penguins in Round 1 despite Mathew Barzal and their first line not producing as expected. The Josh Bailey-Brock Nelson-Anthony Beauvillier unit did most of the offensive damage for New York.
But that trio was again ineffective on Thursday and Beauvillier, especially, looks suddenly lost amid the semifinal intensity. In a game where total shot attempts were 62-52 for the Islanders, Bailey, Beauvillier and Nelson were outshot 8-2 at even strength. That was a total of two shots on net for three of the Islanders’ top offensive forwards.
Beauvillier has no goals and two assists in his last seven games after scoring 10 points in New York’s first eight playoff contests.
“He's a good player,” Trotz said. “Obviously, they're playing him real tight. They're playing our top guys real tight, making it difficult. You've got to fight for inches. I mean, it's no different than (when) I think Barzy struggled early in the playoffs because he wasn't quite willing to fight for those inches and wasn't getting much done. I think right now, Beau's got to find a way to fight for more inches. That's all.”
Barzal has been excellent since early in the Boston series, but the Islanders need all their players to have a chance at dethroning the Lightning.
Rightfully fearful of a lethal Tampa power play that has pumped in 17 playoff goals already, Trotz was successful in convincing his players not to be drawn into the post-whistle scrums and wrestling matches that characterized Game 2.
Trotz is right that the Islanders can’t afford to make this a special-teams series. But it also looked Thursday like the lack of menace and overt animosity may have kept the Islanders from fully engaging the Lightning physically. And it certainly didn’t help the energy level of a crowd that amplified whenever there was a big hit or skirmish.
There’s a fine line amid Trotz’s call for restraint: they can’t afford to take needless penalties, but they also can’t afford to lower their physicality level. The Islanders are best when they’re battering the opposition.
“I think we're a pretty physically engaged team,” heavyweight winger Matt Martin said post-game, his own restraint obvious in the opening period when he didn’t respond to shoves after a couple of whistles. “That's what makes us successful.
“There's momentum swings throughout the course of a hockey game where you try and take back that momentum by reasserting that physicality and being hard on them and getting zone time. I think you can always be more physical, but it's certainly not easy. They've got good players and they're going to make plays and break our pressure at times.”
Trotz didn’t like the interference call on Adam Pelech that led to the Lightning’s only power play, and it sure looked like game-management by the referees when the defenceman was whistled for a moving pick on Nikita Kucherov well away from the puck about three minutes after Tampa’s Mikhail Sergachev was penalized for roughing.
After being knocked down, Brayden Point swept the puck between Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov’s pads for the game-winner at 19:40 of the second period -- two seconds after Pelech’s penalty expired.
GAME OF INCHES
There’s a lot the Islanders need to go their way to beat the Lightning. Some bounces would help.
Yanni Gourde opened the scoring for the Lightning at 10:05 of the first when Blake Coleman’s centring pass caromed off the skate of Islanders defenceman Nick Leddy and straight to the goal-scorer at the far side of the slot.
“It's funny,” Trotz said, “as you go along this path, you go deeper and deeper, the teams are better and better, and you've got to dig in harder and harder.
“At the end of the day, it's a pretty even game. They just capitalized on a chance on a sort of a scramble at the end of a power play. It's a fine line from winning or losing. It's a game of inches right now.”
Jean-Gabriel Pageau is playing hurt, but the impressive two-way centre who leads the Islanders in scoring while consistently drawing the most difficult matchups was still one of New York’s better players on Thursday.
Pageau’s ice time of 16:32 was down slightly from his playoff average, but he and linemates Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri outplayed the Point-Kucherov-Ondrej Palat line head-to-head. Pageau finished with three shots and three hits.
A Patrice Bergeron Lite, Pageau may be one of the best players few people know about.