Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello could not envision a more favorable outcome for the NHL’s return to the play. The New York Islanders became the unexpected story of the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after disposing of higher seeds in the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Pierre Turgeon donned an Islanders sweater in 1993.
Although the Islanders withstood the top-seeded Flyers in seven games in the second round, fatigue and a cross country trip to the Edmonton bubble had a carryover effect in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Islanders dropped the first two games of the series, highlighted by an 8-2 blowout in Game 1 and a Nikita Kucherov game-winning goal with seven seconds remaining in Game 2. The two clubs would split the next two games, leaving the Islanders with their season hanging in the balance entering Game 5.
“We draw on any experiences we’ve had along the way either individually or throughout our careers,” Islanders forward Josh Bailey said about his club facing elimination. “But at the same time, it is another hockey game, and it’s one that we need to win, so we will we approach it that way and put our best foot forward.”
The source for Tampa Bay”s dominance in the Eastern Conference Finals is the balance and depth of their top forward lines, who collectively replaced the production of Steven Stamkos with a commitment to two-way play and using their speed to create odd-man rushes with the puck.
The Lightning put their system to practice in Game 4, erasing a 1-0 deficit with a Blake Coleman backhanded goal in front of the crease off the breakaway. Ondrej Palat would answer 27 seconds later to give Tampa Bay the lead and an eventual 3-1 series edge.
“As a player that prides myself on our line being two-way guys and reliable guys, obviously getting scored on doesn’t sit real well, but credit to (head coach Jon Cooper) keeping us out there to get (the goals) back,” Coleman said. “Obviously when you score that quickly it can swing the momentum back in our favor.”
Tampa Bay’s top line of Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat combined for 23 goals and 63 points during the playoffs, while Victor Hedman paces the club in plus/minus. The efforts of these contributors, along with the play in goal of former Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevsky, keep the Lightning in a position of strength where they control the tenor of each game.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being Palat’s only coach in pro,” Cooper said. “He just does all the things that go unnoticed, but lines don’t survive without him. He doesn’t get the attention some of the other players on his line get, and I’m sure guys like Kuch and Point would tell you that you need Palat on your line, and that’s the ultimate compliment.”
For the Islanders to avoid a playoff exit, they must take advantage of scoring chances presented by the opposition. In Game 2, the Islanders could not score on a five-on-three power-play following an Alex Killorn game misconduct penalty. The Islanders ranked 24th in the NHL on the power play during the regular season and are 1 out of 14 on the man advantage through the first four games of the conference final.
“We’re trying to get a little too fine I think (with the power play),” Trotz said after Game 2. “Sometimes you get a little a too greasy and we were passing it a little bit, and when we had some good looks, Vasilevsky was pretty big. We did not take advantage of a five on three. We’ve had some chances on the breakaway and two-on-ones where we didn’t execute.”
Unlike the top line for the Lightning, the Islanders have not gotten the production from the first unit they expected since Jordan Eberle opened the series with a power-play goal in Game 1. Mathew Barzal’s secondary assist in Game 3 is the only point collected by the first line since Eberle’s goal.
The inability to match the success of their opponent’s top unit creates a notable disparity between their counterparts that explains some of the difficulties the Islanders endure despite remaining competitive in the series since the first game.
T’hey (Barzal and Eberle) are getting a lot of attention,” Trotz explains. “They have had some looks, but haven’t found the back of the net for us, especially on five on five. I think Jordan (Eberle) got a power-play goal in the first game. We are best when will get production up and down our lineup. We’ve got one life left.”
History is not on the Islanders’ side. The 2000 New Jersey Devils are the only team to come back from 3-1 down in a conference final to claim the series and advance to the Stanley Cup. While odds are of a comeback of that stature appear arduous for the Islanders, the team recognizes that a victory in Game 5 can help them right past missteps and perhaps salvage their season.
“We can’t change what has happened,” Islanders forward Brock Nelson said. “Obviously you would like different results and outcomes, but we are here now with a chance, and we have our backs against the walls.”
“We just have to go out and play and give everything that we have. It’s going to take a little bit more from everybody. We have the group that is capable of getting the job done, so we just have to start with one.”