I’m not sure if anyone told you, but the New York Islanders are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 27 years. In Game 1, they looked simply happy to be there instead of actually playing hockey for a chance to be in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who look inspired and, honestly, plain pissed off after last season’s debacle, trashed them 8-2.
That loss might be the more damaging of the two New York has suffered entering tonight’s game three.
New York got back to their game in the follow-up Wednesday, playing almost text-book defensively for 59 minutes in a 2-1 Tampa victory. The Lightning took that one minute, think about that for a second, one minute, and turned it into a 2-0 series lead, capitalizing on momentary lapses in concentration.
A bad icing by Devon Toews, followed by a lost face-off and horrible positioning by Semyon Varlamov led to a Victor Hedman goal late in a first period the Islanders dominated. Then, with eight seconds left in the third period, overtime staring them in the face, and Tampa down two forwards (Alex Killorn and Brayden Point), Andy Greene turned the puck over, JG Pageau was slow to react, and Ryan Pulock and Andrew Ladd failed to extend their sticks to intercept a Ryan McDonagh 50-foot pass to Nikita Kucherov.
Just like that, New York now must beat Tampa four out of the final five games and, as proven Wednesday, will need to play to perfection each time. Not showing up in Game 1, whether you want to believe it was travel or schedule related or not, now looms even larger than originally imagined. You simply cannot afford to give games away at this stage, and let’s be honest here: that’s exactly what the Islanders did. It was a scrimmage.
Matthew Barzal was on another planet Wednesday, darting around the ice with abandon, clearly New York’s best forward. However, he can’t do it alone. Jordan Eberle is still snake bit, not being able to find the back of the net. Captain Anders Lee has been on the back of a milk carton since midway through the Flyers series, with one goal in his past six games. Brock Nelson was the Lightning’s personal piñata, getting banged around outside the rule book. Killorn will sit Game 3 for his reckless check from behind, but Barclay Goodrow somehow escapes all discipline for cross-checking the center’s head into the glass.
Anthony Beauvillier has one goal in seven games and the defense looks spent. Greene, so good early, seems to be wearing down a bit. Pulock and Toews have been turning the puck over with regularity. The power play is still awful, failing on a major in the first period and a 5-on-3 in the third period, with the result much in the balance.
“Yeah, we have to find a way to capitalize on one of those two situations and make a difference in that game. I think we have had decent looks, the 5-on-3 wasn’t our best, but had some good opportunities on the major. Definitely, an area of focus where we need to bear down and force one in,” Lee of the power play.
New York played better in Game 2. But, playing better after the drubbing in Game 1 was never a difficult thing to begin with. The Islanders did get more to their game, however, and dictated the pace during most of the evening.
“I thought last night (Wednesday) we played a much better game, had a chance to win. Obviously, we didn’t get it done. The belief in our room is real good, this series is real close to flipping here and our game is back to where it should be,” said head coach Barry Trotz.
Are the Lightning beatable? Yes. Can the Islanders beat them? Yup. I don’t think there is anyone who believes otherwise, in or outside the team.
Can they win four of five? That remains to be seen. If they do, a trip to the Stanley Cup Final awaits. If they don’t, the bubble experience will end with nothing more than experience gained.