All professional sports teams have a hard time fighting off the complacency that inevitably comes after a lopsided win. The Tampa Bay Lightning will need to fight off the urge to relax a bit if they are to hammer the final nail in the New York Islanders’ coffin in Game 6. So far in these playoffs, the orange and blue-clad hockey team from up north have been harder to kill off than Rasputin. Don’t let the 8-0 drubbing in Game 5 at the hands of the Bolts fool you for even a second. This is the fifth time the Isles have been down in a series this season, and each and every time, they’ve come out on top the next game.
If you need to remember how good they can be, just go back to Game 1 of this series to see the Lightning cannot let up for a single second against this team. That night, the Islanders came into Amalie Arena and snatched home ice away from the favored Bolts. Tampa then got their act together and won the next two while looking like the quicker, more talented team that might just take the series in five games. Then came the second period of Game 4 when everything turned back the other way.
After a tightly contested first period ended 0-0, a comedy of errors, turnovers and penalties led to a 3-0 Islander lead when the second period mercifully ended. The most striking thing about the score was how quickly the momentum shifted to New York’s direction. Josh Bailey scored for the Isles at 5:30 of the middle frame, and from then on, the ice was firmly tilted toward Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Up until that point, Tampa had resembled the team that won Game 3. They played smart, structured hockey, limiting Islander chances at every turn. Even when they did get a good look, Vasilevskiy was there to make the timely save. The Lightning also caught New York in transition a few times but were unable to score, but they were still playing a solid road playoff game before the wheels came off.
Second Period Lapses Have Plagued the Bolts at Times
Of course, the Bolts came out buzzing in the third, scoring two quick goals to make the Islanders sweat, even coming agonizingly close to tying in the final seconds. Ryan Pulock may have thwarted the spin move attempt by Ryan McDonagh, but it was still an incredible play all around. The problems earlier in the game that caused the Lightning to need such a furious comeback is the real issue.
The Lightning, at times this season, have shown a penchant to dislike prosperity. When the team has been up on the opposition and ready to go in for the kill, the foot gets taken off the gas a bit. In the first round against the Florida Panthers, the Bolts took both games in Sunrise to return home for Game 3 at Amalie with a 2-0 lead in the series. Instead of stepping on the proverbial necks of the Panthers, they played a lackluster first half of the game and ended up losing to let Florida right back into the series.
Fast-forward to the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes. Again, the Lightning took both games on the road to head back to Tampa up 2-0. Game 3 against the Canes was a tight one, but in front of the biggest home crowd all season, they took much of the second period off to get down 2-0. The Bolts clawed back to tie it but still lost in OT to give Carolina new life.
Ok, so they lost a tight game to a desperate team; that happens, right? Of course it does, but this was a Hurricanes team that lacked confidence and continuity going into Game 3. They were primed and ready to be put out of their misery if only Tampa had obliged. Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour was grasping at straws, shuffling lines, changing goalies, tactics, anything to stem the tide, but nothing worked until the Lightning started to coast a bit, and it almost turned the series completely around.
The next game saw Carolina jump out to a 4-2 lead in the second period before the Lightning finally woke up and started to play hockey again. Tampa would go on to win the game 6-4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead going back to Raleigh for Game 5. Vasilevskiy was all world that game, facilitating a hard-fought 2-0 win for the Bolts to close out the Canes. Nonetheless, if Game 4 wasn’t brought under control the way it was and Tampa ended up losing, who knows how the series could’ve ended up.
The Islanders Will Not Stop Coming at the Lightning
Florida and Carolina are both solid hockey teams but make no mistake about it; these Islanders are a different animal. The times the Lightning lost focus against their first two playoff opponents didn’t really cost them in the end. The superior talent and skill pulled the Bolts ahead when they needed it too, demoralizing both teams in the process. That simply will not happen against this New York team despite getting ran out of the building in Game 5.
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Just when you think you can relax a little, they come back to bite you and then bite you again. Ask the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins about that, and they’ll say the same thing. Both teams split the first two against the Islanders, won Game 3 and had the chance to bury them with a Game 4 win to go up 3-1 heading home for Game 5. In both instances, New York won Game 4 and ended up taking the series in six. See the trend yet?
The Lightning have seen the blueprint their opponent used in rounds one and two to make it this far. The Islanders have been underdogs in every series so far, but it hasn’t mattered. New York took out the Pens and Bruins and are going toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champs. This team also has extra motivation going for them in Game 6. This is the final season for the venerable Nassau County Coliseum. Expect a near Herculean effort to stave off elimination on home ice.
The Islanders would love nothing more than to go out with one last spin across the Coliseum ice holding Lord Stanley’s fabled chalice. If the Bolts want to make sure that doesn’t happen, the lack of focus that plagued them in the Games 1 and 4 needs to be a thing of the past. Quite simply, they will have to be razor-sharp with zero lapses for the rest of this series. Tampa cannot take a single second for granted against this team. Otherwise the dream of a Cup repeat will be over and out.
Frank is a former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. He’s what you’d call a hockey “lifer” having also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, along with being a longtime member of USA Hockey. Frank comes to THW after contributing content on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com.