If there were any doubts that the New York Islanders could not hang with the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in their second-straight meeting in the Stanley Cup semifinal, those notions were dispelled on Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena as Barry Trotz’s men took Game 1, 2-1.
Goals from Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock proved to be all the Islanders needed as goaltender Semyon Varlamov turned away 30 Lightning shots to outduel Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy.
This is the first time the Islanders have led a Stanley Cup semifinal series since 1984.
“It’s huge,” Barzal said. “You want to get every game, but the first one is just big. Especially coming on the road in a tough building to play in against a team that is so dynamic and explosive.”
After an ineffective power play while getting outshot 7-1 in early proceedings, the Islanders got a pair of big chances through their third line as both Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri were stoned on close-range chances by Vasilevskiy midway through the first.
It helped spark an Islanders run that saw them outshoot Tampa Bay 13-4 over the final 11 minutes of the first.
The Lightning goaltender had to be solid as the Islanders found some momentum on an ensuing power play in which they got four shots on Tampa’s net. He then got some help from the defensemen in front of him as Palmieri had another dangerous wrister and subsequent wraparound attempt blocked.
While the Lightning made a strong push to start the second, Josh Bailey nearly put the Islanders in front three minutes in when he created a turnover on the left boards that had him in on Vasilevskiy alone. His backhander was lifted over the Lightning netminder, but the puck glanced off the crossbar and over.
While Anthony Beauvillier was also stoned on a pair of breakaways, the Lightning started bossing possession in the Islanders’ zone, but their patented organized defense kept Tampa Bay to the outside, limiting any real dangerous chances — though Varlamov still had to be solid, regardless.
“I thought there would be a feeling-out process a little bit, at least for a period, maybe half a game,” Trotz said. “It didn’t seem that way. It seemed like both teams were familiar and both teams went at it.”
As the Islanders remained active in the neutral zone and at their blue line, another Lightning turnover — this time from Steven Stamkos — led to the New York breakthrough as Josh Bailey lasered a pass from just inside his zone to a rushing Barzal, who slid his power move through Vasilevskiy’s five-hole despite Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta being draped over him with 7:28 left in the frame.
“It was a really good play,” Trotz said. “I thought Mat did a really good job making good decisions. He had good patience with the puck and didn’t try to do too much in those critical areas. He moved it, he was really good. Also on the goal — straight-line hockey, that’s when he’s at his best.”
Barzal nearly had a chance for a second early in the third period just moments after the Islanders killed off a Kyle Palmieri penalty, but a rebound off Vasilveskiy’s pads from a Jordan Eberle shot was sent just wide on the backhand.
Just moments later, Pulock doubled the Islanders’ lead 5:36 into the second when he cannoned a slapshot through the five-hole of Vasilevskiy after he was given time and space to list in and get a clear look at the Tampa goal.
“I got a puck there, had some space to walk the line, had a clear lane, got some good wood on it, and was able to sneak it through,” Pulock said of his goal.
In terms of pace, the final period flew with limited stoppages as the Islanders yet again put on a clinic on how to play with a lead — shutting down Tampa Bay’s entries into their own zone, muddling up the neutral zone, and exhibiting a strong forecheck to keep pressure and possession 200 feet away from Varlamov’s goal.
That momentum, though, was stolen when Brock Nelson crosschecked Nikita Kucherov, giving the Lightning a late power play. With 53.7 seconds left, Brayden Point roofed a wrister over Varlamov on their 31st shot of the game to halve Tampa’s deficit and set up a nervy finish.
“I think we’re comfortable in that spot,” Pulock said. “Teams make a push there. They get an extra attacker, they had that power play, it’s tough. They got that goal but we stayed composed, we didn’t get too worried.”
But the Islanders didn’t break as they saw out one last Lightning barrage to already guarantee at least an all-important split on the road with Game 2 coming on Tuesday night.
“That’s what we have to do,” Trotz said. “It doesn’t matter who we play against. We know who we are, we know the way we have to. It was good from a confidence side that you get to your game and have success. We know that. It’s not a revelation or a big surprise or something like that. Guys were dialed in and knew what we had to do and got it done.”