The New York Islanders were one of the strongest teams in the Toronto bubble, but ever since they arrived in Edmonton, they’ve been outmatched by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
Sure, we can forget about the 8-2 drubbing in Game 1 and chalk it up to an unfavorable schedule for the Isles. (They played directly following an emotional Game 7 win over the Flyers and a travel day, while Tampa Bay had a week off.) New York hung with Tampa Bay in Game 2, but a disastrous 30 seconds in the third period unraveled everything. Overall, the Lightning have proven that they have better top-end talent and more overall depth, and Andrei Vasilevskiy (.930 save percentage in this series) has outperformed both Semyon Varlamov (.890 save percentage in three starts) and Thomas Greiss (.667 save percentage in one start).
Can New York fight back? Tying the series after being down 3-1 isn’t unfathomable; the Isles saw the Flyers do it against them in the second round. However, winning that fourth game has been elusive for any team this summer that lost three of four to start the series, and winning three straight games against the Lightning is no easy task. Since the conference playoff format was introduced in 1982, teams that hold a 3-1 lead in the conference finals go on to win 97% of the time (34-1).
“It’s not going to be all roses,” Isles captain Anders Lee said of the playoff journey. “You’re not going to get there by want. You’ve got to go out there and do it. Suiting up tomorrow is going to be another one of those great chances.”
New York, a team that prides itself on structure and character, has vowed not to go out quietly. “This group has invested too much to not give their best effort [in Game 5] on Tuesday,” coach Barry Trotz said after the deflating Game 4 loss.
Here’s what the Islanders need to do to complete a monster comeback.
Get the top line going
The Isles’ top trio of Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee has been buzzing for most of these playoffs, but their production dried up against the Lightning. “They’ve gotten a lot of attention,” Trotz said. “They’ve had some looks, but they haven’t hit the back of the net enough for us, especially five-on-five.”
The Isles’ top trio has combined for only one goal the past four games, a power-play goal by Eberle early in the first period of Game 1. Compare that to Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, who have scored eight goals in this series, despite Point’s missing a game because of injury. Against the Lightning, Barzal, Eberle and Lee have a 57.25% Corsi for percentage, according to Natural Stat Trick, but only a 25% goals for percentage. As Lightning coach Jon Cooper observed after Game 4: “It’s hard to judge. They may only have one goal, but they’re still a pain in the ass to play against.”
Trotz has said that the Islanders play best when they get production from all four lines, and that has been largely true this season. However, there’s no doubt that a goal or two from the top line in Game 5 would do wonders for this team’s confidence.
On Monday’s off day, Trotz said he was considering shuffling the top line. The easy switch might be swapping Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On the second line, Anthony Beauvillier and Brock Nelson (who are tied for the team lead with nine goals) have developed excellent chemistry, and the coaching staff might not want to separate them. However, a tandem of Barzal and Beauvillier — who rarely play together — could also spark something — or, at the very least, be fun to watch.
Neutralize Tampa Bay’s top trio
The Lightning have done all of their damage this summer without captain Steven Stamkos, but they don’t seem to miss him, especially given how well the top line is clicking. In just four games, Kucherov, Palat and Point have combined for 28 scoring chances at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. Both Kucherov and Point have 25 points this summer, just one shy of Brad Richards‘ team record of 26 for a single postseason.
“They’re all good players. They’re outstanding players,” Trotz said. “They can make plays. They go to hard areas and their windows of execution. They’ve got some guys who can pull the trigger pretty quick. They’re high-level, elite players, and you can’t give them an inch. And we’ve given them too many inches.”
Point missed all of Game 3 (and was limited in Game 2), but even that wasn’t enough breathing room for New York. Kucherov has inherited a huge role — especially with the Lightning opting for an 11-forward, seven-defenseman lineup — and has averaged 20:26 a game this series. At times, Kucherov has let his emotions get the best of him. Check out the way he slashed at Jean-Gabriel Pageau in frustration at the end of Game 3. After scoring, Pageau immediately confronted Kucherov, and both sides got involved in the fracas:
Nikita Kucherov doesn’t want Jean-Gabriel Pageau to get his empty-netter. Pageau takes exception after scoring pic.twitter.com/Uq1T1ZJY3k
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 12, 2020
We’ve seen Kucherov get physical in this series, and though he has teetered on the edge, he has yet to let his emotions take him out of a game. The Islanders could try to antagonize Kucherov and bait him into taking penalties, but they — smartly — seem more focused on slowing down his skills. Josh Bailey noted that the Islanders need to do a better job off the rush, but equally important is limiting rebound opportunities.
“You can’t keep those guys away from getting a scoring chance throughout the game,” Bailey said. “But you’ve got to do a good job taking away those second and third ones.”
The Palat go-ahead goal in Game 4 was a perfect example of an area in which the Isles need to improve:
Daily 🏒 Detail
So much to like about this TBL play. How do you turn a 3v3 rush into a goal?
– middle entry
– kick wide to isolate a NYI D, creating a 2v1
– middle lane drive forces other NYI D to come help
– two hook passes (no sauce necessary)
– palat times his route 🚨 pic.twitter.com/dBbYQHkg17
— Hockey’s Arsenal (@HockeysArsenal) September 14, 2020
“You’ve got to be on the right side of them,” Trotz said. “Even their third goal, we go by the net, and they get a second whack at it, and it goes in the net. So you’ve got to stay in between them and your goal. It doesn’t matter who’s on the ice.”
Wake up the power play
Eberle scored a power-play goal in the first period of Game 1. Since then, the Isles’ power play has gone 0-for-13 in 28:05 of man-advantage time. The shortcomings were especially pronounced in Game 2, when the Islanders could score on neither a five-minute major nor a 38-second 5-on-3 in the third period. The power play has been an Achilles’ heel for this team for some time. The Isles ranked 24th in the regular season, clicking at a 17.3% rate. No player had more than four power-play goals all season.
The Islanders need to take this general advice for the power play and the series: Get more pucks on net. It often seems like New York is looking for the perfect pass or, as Trotz noted after Game 2, “trying to pass it into the net.”
“We’re trying to get a little bit too fine, I think,” Trotz said after Game 2. “We’re going to have to shoot the puck more and get greasy.”
Call on reinforcements
The Islanders were dealt a major blow when Casey Cizikas left the bubble this weekend because of an injury. He isn’t expected to return for the rest of the playoffs. The Islanders pride themselves on their ability to roll out four lines evenly, and the fourth line of Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck is especially energizing.
As NBC and MSG analyst AJ Mleczko told me last week: “For those who don’t follow the team, they don’t realize how much that fourth line drives the team. You have to have all three of them. It’s not just one of them.”
Trotz made a good adjustment in Game 4, moving Martin and Clutterbuck up to be centered by Pageau on the third line. Those three worked well in tandem. But facing desperation, it might be time for Trotz to make even more changes.
Andrew Ladd is a good candidate to come off the bench. The 34-year-old, two-time Stanley Cup champion has drawn in the lineup for just one game all summer (Game 2 of this series) but can be an X factor. Here’s what Trotz had to say about Ladd drawing into the lineup in Game 2: “The coaches said he was ready, and he’s scored a lot of goals [in his career] in the net front. He can help us on the power play, good wall play and all that. I just felt it was his time. I trust him. He’s got about 900 games of NHL experience and all that.”
Perhaps it is time yet again.
Then there’s the issue of Johnny Boychuk, the man being paid $6 million per year to be a healthy scratch. The Isles, who have started the same six defensemen for the past 18 games, could use some freshness against Tampa Bay’s speed. Devon Toews has had a rough series and is a candidate to sit, while 37-year-old Andy Greene might also be due for a breather.
Trotz said he and his coaching staff have begun mulling changes to the lineup for Game 5. “But you don’t just blow it all up,” the coach said. “That doesn’t show a lot of trust in [what] got you here.”