For the NHL’s ultimate underdogs, this was a moment worth savouring.
In their first look at the Tampa Bay Lighting since last year’s Eastern Conference Final, the New York Islanders landed a solid counter-punch by bottling up the defending champs with a 2-1 victory to open this third-round rematch.
Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock scored the only goals Semyon Varlamov needed to secure the Islanders a win nine months in the making. That’s how long they’ve had to stew on a six-game defeat at the hands of Tampa inside the Edmonton bubble last fall.
“Both teams were familiar [with each other] and both teams went at it,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz.
“They’re the standard of the league, I would say,” added Barzal.
And yet New York was full value for its win at Amalie Arena, keeping the Lightning’s most dangerous shooters at a safe distance. Brayden Point broke Varlamov’s shutout bid in the final minute, but he, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos were held to just four total shots in the game.
Taking only two minor penalties was critical in that success because of Tampa’s world-beating power play.
But the Islanders also managed the playoff intensity to perfection, avoiding any unnecessary risk and completely nullifying the Lightning’s ability to attack off the rush.
“I think we played the right way,” said Pulock.
This is what we’ve come to expect of a team that consistently fights above its weight class and befuddles bookmakers. The Islanders were once again listed as underdogs entering a series — that didn’t keep them from eliminating Pittsburgh and Boston already this spring — and Trotz acknowledged that it’s a label the group draws on for additional motivation.
“I think probably every coach that ever lived used that tactic,” he said.
They are also looking to make good on a second opportunity to take out the Lightning and reach the Stanley Cup Final.
The first step went much better than a year ago, when the Islanders faced a tight turnaround after relocating from the Toronto bubble to the Edmonton bubble and faceplanted with an 8-2 loss in the series opener. It was much tighter the rest of the way in.
“Last year I didn’t think it was fair at all,” said Trotz. “I thought today was more reminiscent of Games 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 from last year. Both teams are pretty well the same as they were last year.”
Barzal opened the scoring in Sunday’s game, jumping on the ice for a line change just as Josh Bailey found him with a stretch pass. He was in a puck race with Jan Rutta and opened up Andrei Vasilevskiy’s legs just enough to stuff a shot through the five-hole.
Pulock made it 2-0 early in the third period by hammering a point shot past Vasilevskiy’s blocker.
That gave the Islanders enough breathing room to get through a frantic final two minutes that included Point’s power-play marker. But even after limiting Tampa to just eight high-danger chances in Game 1 the respect from the visitor’s side was evident.
“Every time you’re on the ice with them you know how much skill they have and puck possession,” said Barzal. “Such a nice team to watch. When you’re playing against them, it sucks, just because you’re chasing the puck and whatnot.”
Varlamov had kind words for his countryman after besting him with a 30-save effort.
“I mean Vasilevskiy, to me he’s the best goalie in the NHL,” said Varlamov. “He’s been the best goalie in the NHL the last couple of years, he’s outstanding. He’s also a great person, a very humble guy.
“I like this kid, but now we play against each other.”
This Stanley Cup semifinal series looks like it will be a close one and a long one. The Islanders understand they’re still facing an uphill climb, but took a big step by claiming a road victory directly out of the gate.
That makes it more likely they’ll get the chance to play three games in front of their ice-tilting, raucous Coliseum crowd during this best-of-seven.
They’ve also received a boost of confidence by meeting the moment in their first game against Tampa since Sept. 17. It’s a sure sign that their own championship intentions remain intact.
“It’s not necessarily the trophy, it’s the journey to the trophy. Those are the important things,” said Trotz. “Then at the end if you get something you put on the shelf, that’s great, but you’ll remember all the moments and you’ll remember the journey.”