After defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins in the first two rounds of the playoffs, if there were any doubts that the New York Islanders couldn’t keep pace with the defending Stanley Cup champion, Tampa Bay Lightning, they were laid to rest after Game 1 of the semi-final rematch.
Led by goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who is playing like his regular-season self again, the Islanders only needed two goals from Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock to secure the win. They didn’t “dominate” the Lightning in Game 1, but head coach Barry Trotz and co. controlled the pace of the game, which forced Tampa Bay to slow down their run-and-gun style.
Just under a year ago, the Islanders opened their Eastern Conference Final series with an 8-2 loss and were dominated by the Lightning in the Edmonton Bubble. On Sunday afternoon, they made sure history did not repeat itself, and it was Trotz’s 22nd one-goal game in 43 playoff games with the Islanders. Here are the takeaways from Game 1.
Controlling the Pace
Few expected New York’s “boring” style to dominate the rush against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay’s superstars were given very little to work with off the rush and committed seven turnovers in Game 1; their most costly one was made by captain Steven Stamkos. Stamkos tried to feed Anthony Cirelli a cross-ice pass at the Islanders’ blue line before turning his attention away from the ice for a change. Josh Bailey made an excellent defensive play, getting his stick on the pass, and before Stamkos had planted himself on the Lightning bench, the Islanders veteran sprung Barzal for the first goal of the series to take a 1-0 lead.
“It was a really good play,” Trotz said. “I thought Mat did a really good job making good decisions. He had good patience with the puck and didn’t try to do too much in those critical areas. He moved it, he was really good. Also on the goal — straight-line hockey, that’s when he’s at his best.”
In the first period, Bailey had forced his first turnover in the Lightning’s zone and was inches from making it 1-0, but the crossbar had other plans.
Containing the Lightning’s superstars was key to the Islanders’ success. Victor Hedman and Brayden Point were limited to two shots apiece, while Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov were limited to one. The Islanders’ defenders were hard on the Lightning’s top-six, forcing their bottom-six to try and pick up the slack.
“Vasilevskiy is the best goalie in the NHL, a humble guy, I like this kid,” said Varlamov of Andrei Vasilevskiy in a postgame interview on MSG Networks. “He’s athletic and won a Cup last year. What can I say?”
Varlamov, who made 30 saves on 31 shots, isn’t too shabby either, making the Vezina Trophy finalist the second-best goaltender on the ice.
“To me, goaltending is all about timely saves. We’ve got two that have done that for us,” said Trotz. “Varly and Soroky, they’ve done that all year for us. You’re gonna need some big saves. Their goaltender made some for them. When we were up 1-0, I thought we had a couple of good looks to get ahead, and then finally we did. We had to get a save from our goaltender, and we did.”
Varlamov has been stronger in each game. A slow start had Ilya Sorokin playing most of the first round, but Varlamov has since turned in his fifth straight strong performance (Brad Marchand’s overtime goal in the second round aside). It’s just what the Islanders need from their starter. The Trotz structure performs very well in front of their goaltender, but they need Varlamov to make the saves he’s supposed to make. His positioning has been superb, and if that continues, the Islanders shouldn’t see too many early goals against that would force them to chase a game.
Barzal Strong Again
Barzal recognizes the importance of coming into the defending champs arena and taking a game (yet again) on the road.
“It’s huge,” Barzal said. “You want to get every game, but the first one is just big. Especially coming on the road in a tough building to play in against a team that is so dynamic and explosive.”
It took him a little while to get going, but now, Barzal is a threat almost every shift. A nifty move on Hedman gave him an early scoring chance, only to be turned aside by Vasilevskiy. It’s rare that Hedman’s head gets put on a swivel, and Barzal nearly had him on a poster.
Barzal’s goal in the second period was just one of many scoring chances in this game, including another short shift with Kyle Palmieri after he exited the penalty box, but the rebound was sent just wide on Barzal’s backhand attempt.
He’s been a solid presence since he scored his first goal, and if the Islanders make it to the final, he’ll be in the Conn Smythe conversation.
After scoring just two goals in the regular season, Pulock has figured it out in the postseason. He padded the Islanders’ lead on a rocket from the blue line to beat Vasilevskiy through the five-hole for the game-winning goal. Vasilevskiy had a clear look at Pulock’s shot, but some extra mustard saw the puck find twine.
“I got a puck there, had some space to walk the line, had a clear lane, got some good wood on it, and was able to sneak it through,” Pulock said of his goal, his fourth of the postseason and third game-winning goal in 13 games.
“He’s playing really solid,” said Trotz said of Pulock’s game. “Pucks are just going in. Early in the year, he was trying to score, now he’s just putting pucks to the net. I don’t think there’s any change to his game.”
The Islanders’ top-pairing defenseman has been praised all season, with Adam Pelech, for their dominance in the defensive zone. Now, Pulock is heating up at the right time and finding the scoresheet.
A Familiar Foe
“I thought today was more reminiscent of Game 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 from last season,” Trotz said. “I think teams are pretty well the same as they were last year. Systematically, we’re pretty similar. There hasn’t been any overhaul, I don’t think, on both sides…Pretty well what we expected, and in some ways that was good. Being familiar with a team that you haven’t played for [nine] months, it was good. It was a good start for us.”
This is a new matchup after a 56-game season of in-division hockey and the two teams haven’t played each other in just under a year. The Islanders are a little deeper now than a season ago with the additions of Palmieri and Travis Zajac. Anders Lee is missing, but all four lines are rolling for the Islanders, and their depth is paying dividends.
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The experience gained in the Edmonton Bubble last postseason was apparent in Game 1.
“I thought there would be a feeling-out process a little bit, at least for a period, maybe half a game,” Trotz said. “It didn’t seem that way. It seemed like both teams were familiar and both teams went at it.”
A 60-minute effort spelled defeat for the Lightning, and the Islanders took Game 1 in true Islander fashion. Game 2 on Tuesday night will be no small task, but this is the grind the Islanders are built for and are used to.
“That’s what we have to do,” Trotz said. “It doesn’t matter who we play against. We know who we are, we know the way we have to play. It was good from a confidence side that you get to your game and have success. We know that. It’s not a revelation or a big surprise or something like that. Guys were dialed in and knew what we had to do and got it done.”
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