In the first and second rounds of the playoffs, the Lightning faced two of the best defensive teams in the league. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins play a tight, structured game and effectively limit the opposition’s time and space. In defeating those teams, the Lightning played a patient game, one in which they didn’t sacrifice defense for offense. At the same time, as well as the Blue Jackets and Bruins typically play defensively, the Lightning were able to generate offensive chances in those series. And despite seeing some hot goaltending at times from the other side, they capitalized on enough of those looks to propel them to victory.
In the Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning saw another excellent defensive team. The New York Islanders finished as a top-10 defensive club during the regular season. But those numbers may have been skewed negatively by a tough stretch they endured in the second half of the season. An injury to defenseman Adam Pelech affected the Isles’ tight defensive structure. In other words, without that bad stretch, the Isles might have finished in the top five. But once the season restarted, the Islanders welcomed back a healthy Pelech. Pelech’s return, along with the deadline additions of J.G. Pageau and Andy Greene, had the Islanders primed for a strong run.
Right from the get-go, their team defense was outstanding. The Isles suffocated the Panthers in the qualifying round and did the same to the Capitals in the first round. They continued that defensive excellence for a good portion of the series against the Flyers, shutting out Philadelphia in Game One and in the deciding Game Seven. The Isles also showed the capability to score goals – and tally them in bunches. They rallied from several multi-goal deficits through the early rounds of the postseason.
The Islanders were pushed to seven games in their second round matchup against the Flyers and that lengthy series had a ripple effect on the start of this one. The Islanders only had one off-day in between the two games and that day was spent traveling from Toronto to Edmonton. In Game One, the Islanders weren’t their usual sharp selves and the Lightning took advantage. The Lightning repeatedly broke down New York’s team defense to generate Grade-A chances. And they efficiently turned those chances into goals. By the middle of the first period, the Lightning had a 3-1 lead and Semyon Varlamov had replaced starter Thomas Greiss. In what was a preview of segments later in the series, the Islanders did make a push after the goalie switch. From the middle of the first period until the midpoint of the second, the Islanders received three consecutive power play chances and owned more possession time. But they couldn’t cut into the deficit – and even fell behind by another goal when Yanni Gourde converted on a point-blank chance early in the second. By the time Brayden Point tipped in a power play goal at 13:18 of the second, the Lightning had a 5-1 lead and that was it. Following the 8-2 win, Jon Cooper acknowledged that this game was a one-off and that the rest of the series would be much closer. He was right.
From a puck management standpoint, Game Two was the Lightning’s sloppiest in the series. Throughout the night – but especially in the first period – they struggled to string passes together. What they did well to offset their puck management issues, however, was defend effectively without the puck. That helped them get out of the first period in a 1-1 tie. The Isles scored first when Matt Martin converted a chance from the slot at 1:24. But despite a lopsided possession advantage in the opening frame, they wouldn’t add another. The Lightning limited chances. They successfully killed off a five-minute penalty following Alex Killorn’s major and game misconduct. And, in one of the chances the Islanders did generate, Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped Mathew Barzal on a breakaway. Then, late in the period, Victor Hedman tied the game with a point shot that found its way past a screened Varlamov and into the net. The second and third periods were more evenly-played at five-on-five – which is to state that neither team excelled with the puck and had much sustained offensive zone pressure. There weren’t many scoring chances for either side, but the Lightning owned more of those isolated looks than New York. The Islanders had a glorious chance to break the tie when they received a third period five-on-three power play, but couldn’t score. Then, in the closing seconds, the Lightning generated three consecutive looks – and converted on the last of those. Ryan McDonagh pinched to the left circle, intercepted a clearing attempt, and wired a cross-ice pass to Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov buried a one-timer with less than 10 seconds remaining. It was a stunning conclusion to a game that didn’t feature many chances. And in which the Lightning never got completely in synch with their puck play – at least until the final minute of the third. The high-skill play at the end of the game led to the winning goal. But it was the Lightning’s committed team defense and strong penalty killing that helped them overcome their shaky puck play. And they did it for much of the night without Killorn and Point, who left in the second period after sustaining an injury.
Even without Killorn (suspended) and Point (unfit to play) in Game Three, the Lightning were much more crisp in the offensive zone. But they made several significant, costly mistakes that led to Grade-A chances for the Islanders. From an offensive perspective, the Lightning posted 37 shots, enjoyed plenty of o-zone possession time, and produced more scoring chances than in Game Two. They converted on three of those, including two in the third that helped them rally from a 3-1 deficit. But the Islanders took advantage of those aforementioned Lightning mistakes. The game-winner from Brock Nelson came with under four minutes left and began with a Lightning defensive zone turnover. The Isles added an empty-netter for the 5-3 win.
Killorn and Point returned for Game Four, which had three distinct parts to it and two big storylines. For the first period and a half, both teams tightened things up from Game Three. Shots and scoring chances were hard to come by. But at the halfway point of the second period, the Islanders began to surge. Several extended offensive zone shifts culminated in Nelson’s opening goal at 11:27. Twenty-seven seconds later, however, the Lightning had the lead. Blake Coleman’s breakaway goal and Ondej Palat’s tally off the rush put the Lightning up for good. The rest of the second period was a struggle for the Lightning, though. The Isles pressed hard and were effective at generating some close-range chances on Vasilevskiy. But the Lightning escaped the period with their lead intact. The third period was more workmanlike for the Lightning, who added a third goal when Point scored off the rush. They methodically worked the clock, rolled their lines, and limited chances. Pat Maroon’s empty-netter set the final at 4-1. Besides the tight defensive start, New York’s second period surge, and the Lightning’s management of the game in the third, there were those two big storylines. The first was the quick response by the Lightning following Nelson’s goal. The second was the dynamic play of Point’s line, which executed two dazzling rushes leading to goals. Point, Kucherov, and Palat teamed up to record 13 shots and, if not for Varlamov, would have added more goals to their total.
Point was hurt again in the third period of Game Four and he wasn’t able to play in Game Five. His absence didn’t seem to affect the Lightning in the early stages, though. They put a lot of pressure on Varlamov in the opening minutes, but couldn’t score. The Islanders did, opening the scoring with a Ryan Pulock power play goal at 15:41. The middle part of the contest was defensive as neither team had much room on the ice to make plays. But the Lightning made one – and that was enough to tie the game. Early in the second period, Luke Schenn delivered a quick outlet up ice to Coleman while the Islanders were attempting to make a line change. Coleman had an open look from the right circle. Varlamov made the save, but the rebound kicked out to Hedman, who drilled it in.
The Lightning suffered through some puck management issues in the second and third, particularly when they were attempting to come out of their own zone. But they never allowed their struggles with the puck to affect their play without it. The Islanders managed to post only 11 shots on goal during the second and third periods combined.
Once the game got to overtime, the Lightning cleaned up their zone exits. Passing the puck crisply, they built a large possession advantage. Through the two overtime sessions, they had more shots and chances, too. But none of their looks was as good as Barzal’s breakaway in the first OT or Jordan Eberle’s winner off a two-on-one rush.
Those two breakdowns were two of the small number of chances the Lightning allowed in Game Five, which lasted more than four and a half periods. They felt good about how they had defended.
They continued that trend in Game Six. As detailed in my Extra Shift column earlier today, the Lightning dominated play during the first period and a half. Point’s return helped fuel their attack. But due in large part to Varlamov’s goaltending, they couldn’t break a 1-1 tie. Following those first 30 minutes, the Islanders evened out possession time. That was when the Lightning leaned back on their sound defensive structure. So that even when they had to deal with some extended defensive zone shifts, they limited New York’s dangerous looks. And Vasilevskiy took care of those chances that the Islanders did generate – including Nelson’s shorthanded breakaway in overtime. Cirelli’s OT goal ended the game and the series. It was the result of a hard-working play, one that started with a puck battle won in the offensive zone.
In the end, the Lightning’s Game One rout was an outlier. The other contests were very close. In fact, four of the next five contests were tied with less than four minutes left in the third period. So what was the difference? The Lightning, as they have done throughout these playoffs, defended very well without the puck. Sure, they endured some occasional breakdowns. But those breakdowns were infrequent. Their ability to defend hard and limit chances when other parts of their game weren’t in synch was a big key. And while the Islanders also defended well for long stretches in the series, the Lightning were able to break them down at other points. The Lightning made high-skill plays throughout the series that led to crucial goals. Point’s opening tally in Game One. Kucherov’s winner in Game Two. The goals from Coleman, Palat, and Point in Game Four. Hedman’s finishing shots on rebounds in Games Five and Six.
The Lightning’s fourth opponent in this playoff year is yet another excellent defensive club. The Dallas Stars were the second-best defensive team during the regular season and are coming off a series in which they held Vegas to just eight goals in five games. Meaning that the Lightning will again need to deliver the kind of defensive performance they’ve displayed throughout the postseason so far.
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