The Tampa Bay Lightning are heading to the Eastern Conference final for the second consecutive season. Powered by Victor Hedman’s two goals in Game 5, the Lightning bounced the New York Islanders with a 4-0 victory.
Victor Hedman very well could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy last season had the Tampa Bay Lightning earned two more wins and captured the Stanley Cup. And even though the chance to take home the playoff MVP honors doesn’t come around often, Hedman’s Game 5 performance to give the Lightning a 4-1 second-round series victory should make him an early frontrunner for the award.
Hedman was nothing short of outstanding Sunday afternoon, just as he has been throughout the entire playoffs. His two goals in Game 5’s 4-0 victory over the New York Islanders — which sends the Lightning to the Eastern Conference final for the second-consecutive season and third time in six years — give him four goals and nine points in 10 games. That’s not to mention he’s averaging close to 28 minutes per game, has been an impact player on the power play and penalty kill and shut down the Islanders’ best players for the entirety of Round Two.
And while it’s early, maybe too early, to start talking about the Conn Smythe, consider where a Steven Stamkos– and Anton Stralman-less Lightning team probably would be right now were it not for Hedman. As much as Jonathan Drouin has been a revelation offensively and as great as Ben Bishop has been in goal, Hedman has been the clear leader of this team in the post-season and he’s driving the Lightning toward yet another final appearance.
As for the Islanders, for as good as they were in the first round, they were simply outclassed in Round Two. In a must-win Game 5, it’s not so much that New York came out flat as it was Tampa Bay were just that much better. When the Islanders had pressure, it was unsustained and they finished a do-or-die game with only 28 shots on goal, few of which were actually threatening.
Outside of Game 1, there hasn’t been a contest in this series where the Islanders outright dominated any facet of the game, and, really, this series may have been over as early as Game 3. The Islanders were on home ice at the Barclays Center, had last change and the ability to match lines, yet blew three separate one-goal leads en route to an overtime loss. Clinging to a one-goal lead late, New York allowed Tampa Bay to tie the contest with 39 seconds left before Brian Boyle won it for the Lightning in the extra frame. That game turned the tide of the series, and Tampa Bay didn’t look back.
A big part of the Islanders inability to claw back into the series was the defensive prowess of the Lightning and their ability to shut down the Islanders’ stars. John Tavares, who almost singlehandedly won the first-round series for New York, had only one goal and two points in the series. Kyle Okposo matched, but didn’t exceed, that output. The four top scorers for the Islanders were Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, Nikolay Kulemin and Shane Prince, each with three points. It’s good to have depth scoring, but it has to compliment the play of the star players. Unfortunately for the depth players, there was nothing for them to compliment.
This season’s playoff run can be a learning experience for Jack Capuano’s team, though. The Islanders will be back in this position and back in the post-season again, quite possibly as soon as next season, and they’ll have the experience of two post-season rounds to draw from. And just as the Islanders can draw on this experience to improve next season, the Lightning will draw on last season’s heartbreak in the final.
The Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins will both offer greater challenges than the Islanders or Detroit Red Wings have thus far. But the Lightning will be ready, rested and they’ll only get better once Stamkos and Stralman return. A frightening thought, that, because this Tampa Bay team is already looking as scary as ever.