The Tampa Bay Lightning are leading the New York Islanders 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Final and it is has nothing to do with their big stars. Through three games it has been the Tampa Bay Lightning penalty kill making the biggest difference. If it was not for the Lightning’s penalty kill, the Islanders could easily be leading this series. However, the Lightning have found a way to lock it down when they are down a man. And winning at least two of the four phases of a hockey game is critical to a team’s success especially in the playoffs. And as we can see with the Lightning leading the series, they are finding ways to win the most crucial of these phases, special teams. Let’s take a look at how the Tampa Bay Lightning penalty kill has been the difference in this series.
Tampa Bay Lightning Penalty Kill Biggest Difference
In any playoff series, there are turning points. In this series, it came in Game 2. With the Lightning trailing 1-0 in the game, Alex Killorn took a five-minute major penalty. Killorn was tossed from the game and suspended for Game 3. With five minutes to score as many goals as they wanted, many thought the Islanders were going to take control. However, that was not the case. Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning penalty kill went to work. The Lightning kept the Islanders scoring chances to just to the perimeter. Tampa Bay did not let the Islanders get into the high danger areas. Not to mention Andrei Vasilevskiy came up with the big saves when he needed too. As coaches all way say the best penalty killer has to be the goaltender. And great Vasilevskiy was.
Later on in Game 2, the Islanders had a 5-3 power play with the game tied at 1-1. Again it was another chance for the Islanders to seize control of the game. However, the Lightning penalty kill had better ideas. The Lightning again did not allow the Islanders to get many chances to score goals. New York was frustrated they could not generate any scoring chances on the power-play. The Lightning did not allow easy entry into the zone therefore the Islanders could not set up their power play. Instead, the Islanders were forced to play dump and chase hockey which allowed the Lightning to get the puck and send it back down into the Islanders’ end. The Tampa Bay Lightning penalty kill kept them in the game to allow Nikita Kucherov to beat the buzzer to win Game 2.
Even though the Islanders won Game 3, thanks to a late goal by Brock Nelson, the Lightning penalty kill was again a factor. The Islanders went 0-2 on the power play while the Lightning scored on their lone power-play opportunity. Again the Islanders had a chance to bury the Lightning and if they had converted on any of their chances outside of Game 1, this is a completely different series right now. But the Tampa Bay Lightning penalty kill stood tall. Again they frustrated the Islanders at every turn. No easy entries as the Lightning were clogging up the neutral zone.
Aggressiveness Of Tampa Bay’s Defence
One thing that has been noticeable through three games has been the aggressiveness of the Lightning defence. Leading the way has been Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman. Through 15 games this post-season, Hedman has 13 points. During that time he has recorded a point streak of four or more games four times. Everything runs through Hedman on the back end. His ability to move the puck out of the zone and jump into the play is a big key for the Lightning. Not to mention he makes those around him better. Just like at the strides Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, and Kevin Shattenkirk have taken this season. Granted McDonagh and Shattenkirk were good defensemen, but are playing at a higher level because of Hedman. Also, you have to include Zach Bogosian. Bogosian has been able to find his game after leaving Buffalo.
With Hedman leading the charge, the Lightning defence has been able to stay aggressive in the offensive zone. The Lightning defensemen are pinning the Islanders deep in their zone allowing the forecheck to continue. This has led to multiple goals from defencemen in this series including one by Sergachev and Hedman. All these players are buying into Jon Cooper’s system and that is the key in the playoffs. However, the Islanders might have been able to exploit the Lightning’s aggressiveness in Game 3 just a little bit. If they are able to get pucks behind the Lightning’s defence, the Islanders are able to create odd-man rushes going the other way or in the attacking zone. But the Lightning give opportunities, the Islanders just can’t miss.
The Will To Win
Both the Islanders and Lightning have this will to win that is uncanny. Regardless of the score, neither team has the ability to just go away and quit. Outside of Game 1 where the Lightning blew out the Islanders, the last two games have been really competitive. Neither team has given an inch. The Lightning have trailed both times in Games 2 and 3 finding ways to come back. However, in Game 3, it was the Islanders never say quit attitude that got them over the hump against the Lightning. The Islanders could have gone away after the Lightning tied the game at 3-3, but they did not. Instead, Barry Trotz continued to roll his lines and remained calm behind the bench. The Islanders continued to play their style of game which led to a turnover and the Nelson game-winning goal.
But the key for both teams throughout these playoffs has been their abilities not to quit on their system. Both teams know that one mistake is the difference in the series. Tampa Bay has learned the hard way that things do not come easy and they will have to grind it out every single night. On the other hand, the Islanders have been playing that hard-working style ever since John Tavares left because Trotz’s teaches team first over individuals. But that is who the Islanders are and will continue to be. A team that never quits no matter what the odds are because it is not in their make up to back down from a challenge. The Lightning are in for a real fight and will need to break the Islanders will if they want to win this series.
One of the big things going forward is how will the Islanders adjust to the Tampa Bay Lightning penalty kill. If the Islanders can figure out a way to win those puck battles and cycle the puck on the power play they are going to have success. Also, they need to stop the Lightning defence as well. For Tampa Bay, they have to stay out of the penalty box, eventually, the Islanders are going to convert. And the big thing is can Semyon Varlamov continue to match the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Game 4 goes Sunday afternoon.
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