The Tampa Bay Lightning head home with a chance to clinch their second straight appearance in the Eastern Conference final. They’ll try to finish off the New York Islanders Sunday afternoon.
BROOKLYN – Ladies and gentlemen, what you witnessed here over the past two games is the difference between a veteran team that went to the Stanley Cup final and took a lot of notes and one that won its first playoff series in 23 years. And if you needed any more confirmation of that, all you had to do was look at Nikita Kucherov after Game 4 Friday night.
Kucherov had just emerged from the ice, victorious for the second straight time in overtime, with another enormous goal to his credit and the playoff goal scoring lead with eight. But as he sat at his stall staring into space after the Lightning’s 2-1 overtime win over the New York Islanders, he looked about as excited as a guy sitting on a bench in the mall while his wife looks at…Every. Little. Thing. In. The. Store. (Amirite, guys?)
He seemed like a guy who was less impressed at his goalscoring prowess and the fact that his team has taken a stranglehold on the series and more like a guy who was trying to figure out how his home country could lose 3-0 to a bunch of no-name Czechs on home ice in the World Championship.
“You know, it’s not over yet,” Kucherov said. “There’s still more games ahead and stuff.”
Kucherov is doing a pretty good job of making sure there are more games ahead and stuff for the Lightning in this playoff run. With his credentials as an impact NHL player secure, Kucherov is scoring at a blistering pace in these playoffs. His goal to tie the score 1-1 at the 7:49 mark of the third period came off his stick as quickly as it arrived there and beat Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss low to the short side. “He’s proving he’s not a one-hit wonder,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Then in overtime, defenseman Jason Garrison scored in almost exactly the same spot from the other side of the ice.
And once again, as the Islanders tried to have six goaltenders on the ice, it left Garrison with all kinds of time and space to shoot. Over the past two games, the Islanders have dominated the first period by being first to pucks and playing with reckless abandon, then basically going limp and allowing the Lightning to skate circles around them in the offensive zone. And it is the main reason why they trail this series by a 3-1 count and are on the verge of being eliminated instead of going back to Tampa with a 3-1 lead in the series.
Teams that play not to lose often do just that. And it’s a lesson the Islanders and their coach, Jack Capuano, are painfully learning in this series. In the past two games, the Islanders have had a total of 33 shots in the 40 minutes that have represented the first two periods. They’ve had just 34 in the 84 minutes and 22 seconds that have represented the second, third and overtime periods. In 4:22 of overtime, the Islanders have failed to register a shot. At one point in Game 4, the Lightning went more than 13 minutes in the first and second periods without recording a shot on goal. They were getting beat to every puck, were losing all the battles and were only in the game because of the heroics of goaltender Ben Bishop.
As Lightning coach Jon Cooper put it after the game, “We’ve got realize the game starts at 7 and not 8.” But what he said later was even more telling. He was talking about how the Lightning managed to hang in the game until they found their legs in the third period, saying that in the second period, “not a whole lot was happening, but nothing was happening against us.”
And that, in a nutshell, was the key to the game. In two straight games, the Islanders had the Lightning exactly where they wanted them, then decided to instantly transform themselves into the second-best team on the ice. In talking about the overtime goal, Capuano said, “You’d give that shot up all day long.”
He actually said that. Well, that tells us a couple of things. First, perhaps after teaming up with John Tavares to win the first round against Florida, Greiss is beginning to show why he’s never been a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. And Tavares, while much better in Game 4 than he was in Game 3, might be tiring a little as well. He hasn’t scored in three games. But it also says, from this corner anyway, that the Islanders still have not developed the killer instinct that comes from supreme self-confidence. Maybe they don’t really think they’re good enough to be hanging with the top eight teams in the league. Perhaps they just get a case of the yips. Maybe they get caught watching the puck too much instead of, you know, maybe getting a stick on it.
In any event, it’s killing them. Perhaps being down 3-1 will bring out the best in the Islanders because they know now they can’t afford to cower anymore. They’re a desperate team that must play desperate hockey. It will be interesting to see their response.
But they’re up against a team that has been there and done that. And despite missing two of their most important players, the Lightning are proving that last year’s romp to the Stanley Cup final was perhaps the most valuable learning experience they could have had.