Welcome to Pete’s Postmortems, where we’ll attempt to make sense of how and why things went wrong for the teams that have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For the second straight year, a deep (and somewhat surprising) postseason run by the New York Islanders has come to an end in the semifinals. And for the second straight year, they’ve been knocked out by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Isles were able to take it the full seven games this time around (as opposed to six games last year), but they ultimately came up short in Game 7, falling to the Bolts in a 1-0 defensive battle on Friday night.
So what was the difference in this Islanders-Lightning series? Let’s hit on a few reasons.
Both of these teams are capable of rolling four lines and getting impact performances up and down the lineup, and that’s something that was reinforced over the seven games. However, there’s no question that Tampa Bay has more elite game-breaking talent at the top of its roster, and those players helped make a difference in this tight series.
The Islanders did their best to limit the damage, but the Lightning’s best players came to play. Nikita Kucherov had nine points, Brayden Point had eight (including SIX goals), Victor Hedman had five and Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Anthony Cirelli all had four apiece. Yanni Gourde also scored three goals.
Of course, some of these totals may seem a bit inflated when you consider that Tampa Bay won by an 8-0 score in Game 5, but the point remains — the top of the Lightning’s lineup carried its weight throughout the series.
New York’s star power doesn’t exactly stack up, so it’s not exactly surprising the Islanders couldn’t match Tampa’s output. Mat Barzal — the closest thing the Isles have to a superstar — was the only player to score more than one goal for New York in the series (he had three). Behind him, the Isles only had two forwards to register at least three points, and one of them was fourth-liner Cal Clutterbuck.
A few top forwards were disappointingly quiet, one of them being trade-deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri who was brought in to help beef up New York’s offense in the playoffs. Palmieri had zero points against the Lightning, as did Travis Zajac, who came over with Palmieri in that trade. Jean-Gabriel Pageau was held without a point as well.
The Islanders pride themselves on playing a team game and not being overly reliant on any one individual player. They typically love to grind teams down and score just enough to win, which is a strategy that has carried them to the Stanley Cup semifinals in each of the past two years. But in each of those seasons, they’ve run into a stacked Tampa Bay team and been burned, in part, by their inability to match the Lightning’s top-end talent. It’s hard not to feel like the Isles need another difference-maker up front before they’ll truly be able to take the next step.
Given their lack of pure offensive firepower, the Isles would have done themselves a huge favor by capitalizing on power-play opportunities against Tampa.
However, in a rather predictable development, New York was outplayed on special teams, and it proved to be costly in an otherwise tight battle. The Lightning were a top-10 team on the power play (eighth) and on the penalty kill (fourth) during the regular season, while the Islanders struggled on the power play (20th) but was strong on the PK (sixth).
That suggested New York’s power play might have a tough time against Tampa, and — wouldn’t you know it — the Isles sure did. They went 1-for-17 on the man-advantage in the series, including 0-for-10 in the final five games. At times the power play was outright painful to watch, as the Islanders were often sloppy and disjointed and failed to sustain pressure or put shots on net.
On the flip side, Tampa Bay went 5-for-17 on the power play, with three of those goals coming in the Game 5 blowout that featured a five-minute major penalty on New York. But the Lightning saved their biggest special teams victory for last: a shorthanded goal from Yanni Gourde in Game 7.
That was the lone shorthanded strike of the series on either side, and it also was the lone goal of the finale. When you boil it down to one game, special teams made the difference, and it was the Bolts coming out on top.
One of the cruelest fates you could ever wish on an NHL team is forcing it to try to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy in a series-clinching game. With his Game 7 shutout, Vasilevskiy has now posted a clean sheet in four straight series-clinching games — a new NHL record.
The Lightning goaltender was once again outstanding, posting a .940 save percentage and saving 6.25 goals above average against the Islanders. He’s been playing at the top of his game nearly all playoffs, and it almost seems unfair that a team as talented as Tampa also has that guy behind them.
As previously mentioned, the Isles don’t have a ton of offensive firepower, so asking them to figure out Vasilevskiy while he’s on a heater is a tough task. It’s certainly not the luck that they had in the first couple of rounds, when they faced off against a brutally ineffective Tristan Jarry and an injured Tuukka Rask.
In their own net, the Islanders got solid (but not great) goaltending against the Lightning from Semyon Varlamov (.918 save percentage), plus some below-average goaltending from Ilya Sorokin in relief during Game 5. Overall, though, New York couldn’t match the performance that was delivered at the other end.