The New York Islanders’ toughest challenge in the Stanley Cup Semifinals has become trying to break through against the Tampa Bay Lightning’s stifling defense and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Despite their best efforts and controlling play for much of the final 33 minutes, the Islanders came up short in a 2-1 loss in Game 3 at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday.
New York has scored a total of five goals in the first three games and trails the defending Stanley Cup champions in the best-of-7 series heading into Game 4 at home Saturday (8 p.m. ET; USA, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“It’s a fine line from winning and losing,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “You get a save here or you get a dirty puck around the net and it rattles off someone and goes in the net, and you can be on the winning side as well. So it’s a game of inches right now.”
The game went the Lightning’s way Thursday, with Vasilevskiy making 27 saves and his teammates blocking 21 shots. That allowed Brayden Point‘s goal that broke a 1-1 tie with 20 seconds remaining in the second period to stand up as the game-winner.
The Islanders outshot the Lightning 18-7 over the final 33:06, but Cal Clutterbuck‘s goal off a scramble in front with 2:59 remaining in the second period was the only one they put past Vasilevskiy.
“We’re putting pucks toward the net and they’re doing a good job getting in front of it,” New York forward Casey Cizikas said. “… We’re going to keep firing the puck at the net. That’s when we get our chances. That’s when you get the second opportunity.”
That approach led to Clutterbuck’s goal, but that was one of the few times New York was able to get a second chance against Vasilevskiy. Tampa Bay, which is 6-1 on the road in the playoffs, played a near perfect road game defensively and locked things down late.
The Islanders did not have a shot on goal for the final 5:49 of the third period, including the last 1:47 when goalie Semyon Varlamov was on the bench for an extra attacker.
“Obviously they’re the Stanley Cup champions. They’ve been in these situations,” Trotz said. “We tried. We tried, and we just have to get more pucks [on net]. We have to get inside. We had some chances and Vasilevskiy made a couple of key saves. They didn’t have a lot tonight. I thought we were pretty good defensively as well. A lot of stuff they got I think we gave it to them.
“It’s funny. As you go along this path as you go deeper and deeper, the teams are better and better, and you’ve got to dig in even harder and harder.”
The Islanders battled through against some good defensive teams, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins in the first two rounds of the playoffs. But in this round they are facing a team that learned how to win last season and has Victor Hedman, a finalist for a fifth straight season and the 2018 winner of the Norris Trophy voted as the NHL’s top defenseman, and Vasilevskiy, voted a finalist for a fourth straight season and the 2019 winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie.
“Tampa [Bay] is good all around,” forward Matt Martin said. “They’re the defending Stanley Cup champions and they know what it takes to win. They’ve got a couple top-tier defensemen and four good lines that know what they have to do in their [defensive] zone.”
It would help if the Islanders got more from some of their top forwards. After driving the offense for much of the first two rounds, the second line of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey has not scored an even-strength goal against the Lightning and was limited to two shots on goal in Game 3, one each from Beauvillier and Bailey.
The third line of Kyle Palmieri (3), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (3) and Travis Zajac (1) combined for seven shots on goal and generated some of the best chances but did not score.
“There wasn’t much room out there,” Trotz said. “Both teams are adjusting to each other and we’ll go at it again. But there’s two teams going head to head, and you go through some of their surges and they’ve got to defend against some of our surges, and hopefully we can find the back of the net a little bit more here.”