TAMPA – The Tampa Bay Lightning expect tight checking from the New York Islanders and low scoring games in a rematch of last season’s NHL Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning got what they expected from the mantra of the New York Islanders on Sunday afternoon as New York defeated Tampa Bay, 2-1, in a tightly contested, hard checking Game 1.
Magnificent goal-tending was the flavor of the day, but in the end, a neutral zone turnover was one key difference in the New York Islanders’ 2-1 win.
New York winger Josh Bailey stopped a pass off of Steven Stamkos’ blade and threw it forward to Matthew Barzal on a long pass. Barzal, who was skating ahead of Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta, went five-hole on Vasilevskiy for a 1-0 lead at 12:32.
Barzal, who picked up his fourth goal and tenth point of the playoffs, was tenacious in working the Lightning all afternoon as he came up with multiple pucks and was key in allowing the Islanders’ forecheck to control the afternoon.
“We knew it was going to be tight and you have to stick with the grinding game,” said Stamkos, who was clearly upset with himself. “On the first goal, myself, I was just trying to make a play there. You see what can happen. It can go the other way and score and be the difference in the game. I need to be better there.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper lamented turnovers and the lack of usual focus that the Lightning normally bring to the ice.
“Our work ethic was there; our compete was there; our minds weren’t there,” explained Cooper. “Some of our decisions were poor. That’s what happens when you get this deep into the playoffs. You have to have everything working in unison and we just weren’t there tonight.”
New York used a solid forecheck for much of the afternoon and excellence in goal from net-minded Semyon Varlamov, who stopped 30 of 31 pucks which came his way as he won his fourth in a row.
“One, we managed the puck; two, we were disciplined; three; we didn’t take a lot of unnecessary risks,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. ” I thought the good game management, puck management, and we checked with our feet and you know, I thought we made pretty good decisions. We made good decisions in the offensive zone even thought we had two goals.”
In the Tampa Bay locker room, Cooper noted how his team mismanaged the puck, uncharacteristically, which took the Lightning out of numerous opportunities. Tampa Bay had seven giveaways on the afternoon.
“It’s frustrating to lose, but this is no different than the team we basically beat in the bubble (last season)” said Cooper. “We made too many mistakes – the unforced errors. Managing the puck is the big thing against this team. They managed the puck and got one extra break.”
In the third period, New York defenseman Ryan Pulock found a puck near him at 5:36 and fired a one-timer which found the five-hole on Vasilevskiy again. It was Pulock’s fourth goal of the playoffs and spelled a 2-0 lead which arbitrarily cemented the Islanders, 2-1 win.
Jordan Eberle dug the puck out from the boards and sent it in the direction of Pulock, who scored his fourth goal of the playoffs as Eberle collected his sixth assist.
“We know who we are we have to play they way we have to,” explained Trotz. “Good from a confidence side that you get to your game and you can have success. It’s not a revelation or a big surprise. Guys were dialed in and knew what we had to do and we got it done.”
At 19:07, Brayden Point scored his ninth goal of the playoffs when he found the Lightning’s only goal of the afternoon. Point set up in the middle of the ice and went high on Varlamov with a pass from Alex Killorn.
The goal was after Tampa Bay pulled Vasilevskiy and the Islanders’ Brock Nelson was assessed a high-sticking penalty at 18:22.
Off the face-off, the puck set up in the Islanders zone where Victor Hedman fired two one-timers and Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos had shots.
Kucherov and Stamkos had only one shot each on the afternoon.
“I think our team realizes how be patient we are going to have to be,” noted Stamkos. “It can be one bounce out there.”
The physicality of this series was felt early as Tampa Bay’s Barclay Goodrow and Mike Martin of the Islanders were assessed unsportsmanlike conduct penalties just eight seconds after the opening face-off. Hits were at 41-40 in favor of the Islanders as this category is going to be a norm for the series.
Both Vasilevskiy and Varlamov were put on notice early as both teams had numerous scoring chances in the first period. Tampa Bay came after Varlamov as they put five shots on him in the first 4:38 of the first period, including two breakaways off the penalty kill.
New York outshot Tampa Bay, 14-11, in the first period as the Islanders built momentum throughout after the roughing penalty on Barclay Goodrow at 9:21. The Lightning had outshot the Islanders 7-3 at the point of that penalty, and it felt like Tampa Bay never picked up any momentum until Point’s late goal.