The New York Islanders won Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 2-1 victory, shocking many experts that had them pinned as massive underdogs entering the semifinal. The win was a compilation of a lot of elements of the game swinging in the Islanders’ favor, with everything appearing to click in the low-scoring game. Likewise, the opening game of the series was a reminder of what this series will entail, how the Lightning can be defeated, and a preview of what should be a matchup to remember. Game 1 was a strong indicator that the NHL won’t see a re-run of last season’s Eastern Conference Final.
Defense Will Continue to Control the Series
Game 1 saw both teams establish the blue lines from their defensive pairings, making it incredibly difficult to comfortably carry the puck through the neutral zone and establish an offensive zone presence. Likewise, the Lightning and Islanders were disciplined in their defensive zones, not allowing for any open passing lanes or puck movement to set up easy shots on the net. The Islanders, in particular, also received more than enough help from their forwards in the game as they created turnovers on the backcheck and along the boards, keeping the Lightning offense limited for the entirety of the game.
Moving forward, the Islanders must continue to control the series defensively. Both teams have great defensive units, but the Islanders have been led by their three pairings throughout the season, and against an offense that can pile on the goals at any time, the unit must continue to provide that stability, especially if goals are going to be hard to find against the opponent’s great defense. The defensemen must continue to create turnovers in the neutral zone, as they were able to do in Game 1, as well as continue to help out their goaltender by incepting passes and blocking shots, something Scott Mayfield was able to do a team-leading four times in the 2-1 victory.
Islanders Offense Must Methodically Attack Vasilevskiy
Andrei Vasilevskiy is a world-class goaltender, arguably the best in the NHL. Game 1 was only a testament to his excellence as the 26-year-old goaltender saved 29 of the 31 shots he faced and eliminated plenty of Islanders scoring opportunities when the Lightning defense allowed for them, a frequent occurrence in the game. Vasilevskiy is one of the Vezina Trophy finalists and is posting a .934 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average in the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but despite the accolades, has shown weaknesses and areas where an opponent can test him. The Islanders’ offense found those potential weak points and tested the Lightning goaltender throughout the game. Mathew Barzal‘s breakaway goal, where he slid the puck through his legs, was an indication of how the offense can and likely will attack the world-class goaltender.
Vasilevskiy, like the two goaltenders the Islanders faced in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, has shown in multiple games that he struggles with specific shots, particularly ones that are in the lower half of the net. The Islanders must continue to shoot to the pads of the 26-year-old goaltender throughout this series, unlike aiming for the top shelf, which helped fuel the series wins against the Penguins and the Bruins respectively, as the Lightning goaltender has proven to be excellent with the glove and squandering scoring opportunities on elevated shots. Not only will lower half shots on the goal be more likely to find the back of the net on Vasilevskiy, but they will also allow for second-chance scoring opportunities and lucky redirections to find skaters near the net.
Special Teams Will Continue to be Pivotal
The Islanders only allowed the Lightning to be on the power play twice in the game as part of a disciplined performance. While the Lightning scored on one of the power-play opportunities, albeit, in the final minute of the game with an extra skater on the ice, the special teams played a significant role in Game 1 and will continue to be a decisive factor in the series. The Islanders’ opponent has scored an unprecedented 16 power-play goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, possessing puck movement and skill on the advantage to create scoring opportunities and catch the goaltender in a difficult position to make a save. Limiting the number of man-advantages they receive is going to be paramount to the team’s success. Granted, the penalty kill must step up, as it has allowed 11 goals in 28 attempts in the playoffs but limiting the power play opportunities will the major advantage throughout this series.
Play From The Point
Ryan Pulock scored the second goal of the game, his fourth of the playoffs, with a shot from the point in the third period to give the Islanders a 2-0 lead. Throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the teams that have been successful in the close games have been the ones that have seen the great play from their defensemen at the point, with the Islanders being no exception. The defensemen have opened up the offense from the point, whether from a Pulock slapshot or a Noah Dobson pass to an open skater, leading to seven assists in the playoffs. The team must continue to have success in this regard, especially against a goaltender like Vasilevskiy, who forces an opponent to work for their goals.
Likewise, the Lightning offense tends to be most effective in the tight games, like the game that was recently played, when defenseman Victor Hedman is able to make plays from the point. The Islanders witnessed this first-hand in last season’s Eastern Conference Final when the Lightning offense was able to find open shots on the net with Hedman either firing the shots from the point or distributing the puck from the point to skaters in the offensive zone to break the defense. The Islanders limited this element of their opponent’s offense in Game 1, but if they let their guard down, the team can be exposed in the upcoming games and ultimately lose the series.
Other Determining Factors in the Semifinal
The Islanders wouldn’t have won Game 1 without the strong play from their goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who saved 30 of the 31 shots he faced, and the only goal allowed came in the final minute of the game. The goaltending duo of Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin helped carry the team throughout the regular season, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but dominant play from the 33-year-old veteran can propel the team to their first Stanley Cup since the 1982-83 season. Likewise, the Islanders are starting to see a star being born in the current playoff run in Barzal, who scored his fourth goal in the playoffs and can put the team over the top if he continues to find the back of the net. Ultimately, the first game was proof that the semifinal won’t be a re-run of last season’s Eastern Conference Final, where the Lightning controlled the pace of the games and the majority of the series, winning it in six games.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.