The New York Islanders won Game 4 with a 3-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning to even the semifinal series at two wins apiece. The series has already exceeded the expectations of many as the games have been close, exciting, and great matchups, and it’s now essentially a three-game series. Unlike last season’s matchup, the Islanders are poised to advance the Stanley Cup Final and see their path to the series victory with the right formula for winning these games and the depth to take advantage of many situations. Moreover, like the previous two rounds, head coach Barry Trotz and the team’s coaching staff have proven they can make adjustments to control the latter half of any series they play in.
The Islanders have proven throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs that they can beat their opponent from any line of their forwards unit. The great surprise has been the offensive resurgence, considering the offense struggled in the regular season following the Anders Lee season-ending injury. They failed to find the right line combinations for their top line, resulting in a team that only scored 2.71 goals per game. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Islanders have not only seen their top line step up, with Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle starting to create scoring opportunities in the offensive zone, but it’s hard to find any shift that is a liability for the team. In addition, Kyle Palmieri and Josh Bailey, who combined for only 10 goals in the regular season, have combined for 13 goals in the playoffs.
In the recent 3-2 victory, the Islanders found three goals from three different forward lines, including the fourth line or “Identity Line,” with Matt Martin firing a second-chance shot past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The goal was a reminder of how the Islanders are going to beat the world-class goaltender, with second-chance opportunities and the ability to create chaos in front of the net. But more importantly, the scoring depth also provides the blueprint for beating the Lightning’s defense: the ability to overwhelm an opponent and continue to attack the net, regardless of which line is on the ice, especially against a defense that has shown vulnerability on the back end.
Defensemen Impacting Both Ends of the Ice
The Ryan Pulock save to end Game 4 can’t be praised enough, as the top defenseman was able to block Ryan McDonough‘s last-second shot. The play by Pulock speaks volumes to the way the defense has progressed since Trotz arrived in New York, with the unit’s willingness to put their body in front of a shot or know their role in a given situation. But it’s also about how the defensive pairings have led the way. All three defensive pairings for the Islanders have been great all season and have impacted every part of the game, with the unit stepping up from the point on the offensive end of the ice in the playoffs.
Moreover, the Islanders’ defensemen have been able to set the tone for the semifinal series against the Lightning. The three pairings are eliminating their opponent’s potent offense from establishing an offensive zone presence by creating turnovers in the neutral zone and cutting off passing lanes, even when the Lightning possess the puck in the offensive zone. Likewise, the ability to fire the puck on the net from the point is opening up the offense, as it allows the Islanders to find scoring chances where there otherwise wouldn’t be any, accounting for an offense that struggles at times to create space in the offensive zone. The continued great play from the defensive unit gives the team an edge in the semifinal series and will ultimately allow the team to advance.
One of the positive attributes of the regular season struggles was the constant shuffling of the forward lines. While the shuffling resulted in some losses, it allowed the Islanders’ roster to become a more flexible one for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, allowing the coaching staff to make adjustments in games and find matchups they can exploit in their opponent.
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Oftentimes, the Islanders will swap Palmieri and Leo Komarov on their forward shifts, allowing a goal-scoring threat in Palmieri to play alongside Barzal and Eberle to give an extra boost to the scoring line. The flexibility also allows the team to change defensive pairings within a game, which allows them to take advantage of a given situation, whether it be the power play or the need to shut down their opponent.
How Will the Islanders Ultimately Win the Series?
The semifinal series is proving to be one that boils down to even the smallest of details within games. A lucky bounce, a penalty resulting in a consequential goal, momentum-swinging within seconds, and everything in between. The Islanders have the advantage in this series when it comes to roster adjustments and overall team depth. But the Lightning not only have the experience but a goaltender who requires an offense to earn their goals and have the advantage when they can effectively move the puck in the offensive zone. The series is shaping up to be a great one. And the Islanders can advance if they continue to set the tone for the semifinal series and force their opponent into uncomfortable situations as they did in the Game 1 2-1 win and the Game 4 win.