The Islanders have a structure. Every player knows his role and executes it. Defense comes first. Hard work is a necessity.
During this Stanley Cup semifinal series, the Lightning are playing the Islanders’ game, but they’re doing it better.
“They get a lot of credit for how offensive they are,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz told the media Friday. “They have elite players, but they don’t get enough recognition for their overall five-man game.”
The two teams have faced each other nine times in the playoffs over the past two years. Five of those contests have ended 2-1 — including Thursday’s 2-1 Lightning victory at Nassau Coliseum — and the Islanders have scored more than two goals just once (Eastern Conference finals Game 3 in 2020).
When the teams square off, either the Islanders’ offense falters or the Lightning’s defense excels. Trotz thinks the latter is true.
“Everything we do is working from the inside out,” Trotz said. “They do a really good job. They challenge our exits. They get numbers back quickly. They got a good D-core. They are big and have big sticks. They get back and they work. They don’t get enough credit for how good they defend.”
And when things go awry, the Lightning have perhaps the best goaltender in hockey to save the day. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced in Game 3, including 14 high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“They have a good goaltender,” Trotz said. “When things do break down, they are able to get a timely save. You are not going to beat him clean. It just doesn’t happen.”
Scoring goals in dirty areas wasn’t a challenge for the Islanders against the Penguins and Bruins in the first two postseason rounds. Now, it is. And the Lightning are thriving in that department.
Tampa Bay scored its two goals Thursday on broken plays. First, Yanni Gourde beat Nick Leddy to a loose rebound. Then, Brayden Point scored from his chest on the game-winner.
“Those aren’t pretty goals. Those aren’t what you would think would be Tampa Bay, east-west, high-skilled goals,” Trotz said. “A lot of will, putting pucks to the net, second efforts.”
In a battle between two teams that practice similar styles, whichever can do it better most likely will be advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
“There’s no secret. They are a great team. They are known for their structure and their defense,” Lightning forward Blake Coleman said. “You have to be willing to pay the price to get to the net. We have a big heavy group and can play that style of game, too. We know it is going to be a grind to get through the rest of this. We have a ton of respect for the Islanders. It makes our job harder, but it is a great challenge for us.”