5 things Lightning need to do to pull out Islanders series

by 24USATVJune 20, 2021, 9 p.m. 23
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It’s been awhile since the Lightning found themselves in this situation. More than two years, to be precise.

Following Saturday night’s 3-2 loss in New York, their Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Islanders is tied at 2 heading to Game 5 Monday at Amalie Arena. It’s the first time Tampa Bay is 2-2 after four games of a postseason series since the 2018 Eastern Conference final against the Capitals.

After being swept by the Blue Jackets in the opening round in 2019, they jumped out to a 3-1 lead in six consecutive series over the past two postseasons.

As Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said after Game 4, it’s a best-of-three series now.

Here are five things the Lightning need to do to pull out the series and advance to the Stanley Cup final for a second straight season.

The Lightning’s power play has been one of the league’s best this postseason, but man-advantage opportunities have been infrequent against a disciplined Islanders team that knows how to stay out of the penalty box.

It’s why even-strength scoring is more important now than ever.

The Islanders have scored 41 goals at even strength this postseason, compared to 29 for the Lightning, while playing one more game (16 to 15). The teams are tied 7-7 at even strength in their semifinal series.

Game 4 marked the first time since June 5 (Game 4 against Carolina) that Tampa Bay allowed three or more goals in a game.

“Both teams can play (defense), so goal-scoring’s at a premium,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “If you (give up) two or less, you have a good chance to win the game. When you give up three, you’re tempting fate.”

The teams were nearly even in high-danger scoring chances at full strength on Saturday, with the Lightning edging the Islanders 8-7.

Turnovers continue to be a sore spot for the Lightning in this series.

Tampa Bay has 45 giveaways to New York’s 38. The Lightning’s 20 in Game 4 were three more than the Islanders.

The giveaways have been costly. Steven Stamkos’ ill-advised cross-ice pass at the offensive blue line led to a Mathew Barzal goal in New York’s 2-1 win in Game 1.

In Game 4, Ross Colton couldn’t control a pass from defenseman Erik Cernak in the neutral zone, feeding the Islanders’ transition and setting the stage for Josh Bailey’s opening goal.

The Lightning know they can’t continue to give the Islanders these kinds of chances, so puck management will be a key as the series progresses.

“We just turned it over way too many times,” Cooper said. “You just realize how precious every period is and every shift is, and it’s one of those, if you do bend you can’t break, and in that second period we broke and it was a little self-inflicted.”

If this series has shown anything, it’s the importance of getting on the scoreboard first. In all four games, the team that opened the scoring won.

Scoring first gives a team confidence, allows it to play its game rather than having to chase the score and helps to silence crowds on the road.

The Lightning knew entering the series the Islanders would be physical. Four games in, they’re finding out just how important being strong on the forecheck is for both teams.

A heavy forecheck wears down a defense and allows a team to gain possession of the puck and extend its time in the offensive zone.

“I think we’ve been doing a good job,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “There’s been times where we’ve sustained a really good forecheck, and there’s been times where the Islanders have sustained a really good forecheck. So it’s two really good forechecking teams going at it head-to-head.”

When the Lightning needed their defensemen to step it up on the scoresheet, Jan Rutta and Victor Hedman answered the call with goals in Game 2.

But since then, the blueliners have gone quiet again.

Last postseason, Lightning defensemen combined for 10 goals (seven from Hedman) and 29 assists through the first 15 games. While they again have 29 assists this postseason, they’ve accounted for just two goals.

By contrast, Islanders defensemen have contributed six of their team’s 51 goals (12 percent) to go with 22 assists.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck,” Rutta said. “I mean, (Ryan McDonagh) had a sick play at the end (of Game 4), so I think the production (can) be better. We can still take more shots instead of making that extra pass, but I think the D as a group, we’re helping the forwards create some offense.”

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