Where did the Islanders go wrong in late-game breakdown against Lightning?

Game 2 was everything the Islanders wanted it to be, and everything they needed it to be to take down the formidable Tampa Bay Lightning. They gave themselves a chance to even up the series by playing as they did against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7, choking the life out of their opponent while patiently waiting for their own opportunity.

Going into the final minute of the third period the Lightning were at just 19 shots on goal, they had just three scoring chances in the third period, and appeared to be in some trouble down to just nine forwards. But they just wouldn’t tap out.

Then, the wheels came off for the Islanders. So where did they and their well-executed game plan go wrong?

I’ve got a dozen screenshots that start with 35 seconds remaining, which highlight where it came unglued. Three players who showed up in the Islanders dressing room between February 16 and 24 -- Andy Greene, Andrew Ladd, and JG Pageau (albeit to a lesser extent) -- will unfortunately all show up in the video room this morning, as well.

In the below frame the Isles are in control. Adam Pelech and Nick Leddy are playing catch while the Isles get fresh troops on the ice. I know from reading some Islanders blogs this morning that many aren’t please with the chosen lineup here in the final minute (Ryan Pulock, Andy Greene, Leo Komorov, Andrew Ladd, JG Pageau), and that may be fair.

I do think there’s a point to be made, though, that they aren’t protecting the lead here, and that this is unofficially overtime, so the next goal wins. If you feel like this line is good enough to play at any point, this minute isn’t much better or worse than the ones preceding or the ones to come. You’d like to at least get to the intermission to regroup, maybe, but we won’t dwell on Barry Trotz's decision here, because we can’t exactly know what he was dealing with on the bench. We don’t know who was gassed, who was fresh, or whatever else was happening on their bench.

Pageau gathers speed in the regroup, Leddy gets the puck down the rink, and the Isles complete their change.

Fresh defencemen come on in Pulock and Greene.

Komarov pursues the puck, and Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy makes an excellent play. I know some people think goalies should just stay in their crease, but here both Lightning defencemen get to fan out as options, which essentially isolates Komarov and gives the Lightning a numbers advantage.

Vasilevskiy rims it past his D and the forecheckers, trapping Pageau and Komarov low in a fairly harmless fashion.

The next frame is where it starts to get weird. New York's defence and forwards aren’t connected, in that there’s a huge gap in the forechecking layers. That’s likely because Vasilevskiy moved the puck so quick, so the D haven’t had time to gap up and retreat with the oncoming rush.

Greene has hopped on the ice and Pulock is kind of caught in between getting up in the forecheck and protecting back the other way. Again, it happens quick. Pulock is out at the dots by the wall, just out of the frame below. Greene presumably thinks he’s above the next-scariest Lightning player.

The thing is, as scary as it seemed for Isles fans, it only resulted in an unscreened backhand from above the hashmarks. That won’t go in very often. This should’ve meant absolutely no panic for the team, as much as Pulock had to scramble to force the pretty harmless attempt.

But now it comes unglued.

“Return to D-zone” is the most talked about coaching thing that isn’t discussed in the media. It’s a thing teams practice. When you come back into your end, depending on where the puck is, you have places on the rink to go. Herein lies the problem though, and it’s a point I want to make before we get into this play specifically.

During practice, and on whiteboards, coaches show players where to go on the rink using the lines on the ice as guidelines. If the puck is in a certain corner, the coach will say “OK, you, last forward back into the zone, I want you between the hashmarks in the centre of the rink on this drill” or whatever. What gets lost with players is those guidelines, and you haven’t done your job just by getting to that spot. You’ve done your job when you get to that area, look around, and find a guy to cover.

So many players are content with “Well I’m where I’m supposed to be,” then they end up standing beside the guy who shoots it in the net. Defence is defending players, not areas of ice.

In this play, Ladd (16) sees his two defencemen on two Bolts forwards in the corner and still comes low, getting sucked in by the allure of the puck. He’s supposed to stay closer to the ice at the front of the net (while the two defencemen are off in the corner), then look for humans. He’s in absolute no-man’s land here.

The second guy, Pageau (44), is a better example of what I’m talking about. He’s where he’s supposed to be as the weak-side winger, but then take a look around and cover a guy, y’know? Neither he, nor Ladd, shoulder-check and find Ondrej Palat cruising into the danger zone.

Ladd gets pulled closer to the puck and farther from relevance. Pageau likely starts thinking that the Isles are in a good spot, so if there’s a turnover, maybe he’s about to get going the other way. I can’t call it “cheating” because I don’t know where his head was at, but it’s possible he’s at least got a quarter-lean thinking offence here. Either way, he’s definitely not thinking defence.

Palat takes an absolutely brilliant pass, spins and fires.

And phew, finally, the threat is over, the Isles have the puck. (Cringe.)

Andy Greene (4) grabs it on his backhand. I’m not sure if Ladd calls for a reverse here, but if that happens, they’re out of the zone.

Greene could also eat this and kill the clock, or put it softly by the back of the net for Pageau to maybe chase down and tie up in the corner.

In fairness, Greene doesn’t rim it that hard, so he’s probably trying to do something like what I just mentioned. He probably wants it away from the back of the net (smart), and thinks Pageau is gonna be in a 50/50 battle. But Ryan McDonagh is pretty aggressive in his offensive positioning, as you can see above.

Still, the play ends up being a turnover, however you want to dress it up. The Isles have it, but the Bolts get the next clean touch.

What you should note is how unfortunate the play was from Pulock’s perspective, and also how savvy it was by Kucherov to find that little soft spot he loves to go to.

Pulock does shoulder check to see if there’s anyone in that dangerous spot and it’s vacant. For now.

Pageau comes down too low to take away the lane (he’s likely thinking of a shot-block), Pulock doesn’t think there’s a need to take away the lane after his shoulder check, and Ladd is … well, Ladd is in the right spot on the rink, but again, find the guy near your spot on the rink.

I love in the image below how you can see Kucherov having to lean to even see the passing lane, because it’s so congested with bodies, but he knows the lane may be about to appear.

A passing lane only has to be as wide as a puck, and this one wasn’t too much bigger. Kucherov is set and ready if it makes its way through. And it does.

You can watch the play in full below here, but my conclusions are simple. Ladd never finds a guy to cover at any point. Pageau is around where he should be, but never really defending. And Greene just flat-out makes an error. I thought Pulock was pretty good all told, and Komarov just wasn’t involved with the way the play unfolded.

Why do I think those things happened? I think it all stems from the initial Gourde shot. It feels like the Isles are on their heels for a second there, and I think it changes the mental state to a little more panicked one, and so the poise goes. It probably goes worse for a guy like Ladd who hasn’t been in the lineup, and so feels the pressure a bit more. That seemed to be reflected in his play in those moments.

This brings us back to the top, and Trotz’s decision to have him and that group out there in the final minute, which I don’t feel entirely comfortable criticizing, but does looks dicey on its face.

Whatever the reasoning there, it cost the Isles who are now down two to the presumptive Cup favourite going back to the start of return-to-play hockey (like many, I picked Tampa to win it all). It’s hard to imagine a scenario where New York beats them four times in five games, but if there’s one thing this Isles group has proven they can do, it’s surprise people when they least expect it. It’s just a matter of sticking to their bread and butter – attention to detail – for 60 minutes instead of 59:30.

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