The New York Islanders announced their arrival in the Eastern Conference Finals in Game Three, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 5-3 to cut the Lightning series lead in half.
However, I’m sure if you asked Barry Trotz what type of game he’d prefer his team play, he’d be more comfortable playing a game similar to that of Game Two rather than Game Three.
Going into the series, the Islanders expected goals allowed per 60 minutes was a miniscule 1.89. In Game One, Tampa posted a 2.24 expected goals/60 minutes at 5v5, adjusted for score effects. Game Two, Tampa posted a 2.13 expected goals per hour. While these numbers were an increase from the Isles average, it was an understandable increase based on the quality of their opponent compared to previous rounds.
In Game Three, Tampa Bay posted a 3.01 expected goals/60 number. Even though he got beaten three times, Semyon Varlamov deserves a lot of credit in that Islanders win. The Islanders blew a 3-1 third period lead, before Brock Nelson scored late in the third to regain the lead.
As a defense first team, the Islanders do not want to play high-paced, high event games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. If they want to turn this into a competitive series, they cannot blow two goal leads. Getting the win was great, but the Isles game was far from the game this team needs to play in order to be successful.
A potential reason for the more wide-open game from an Isles perspective was the fact that fourth line center Casey Cizikas missed the game due to injury. While not a name that moves the needle for a lot of people, Cizikas is a huge part of the Isles. He centers the fourth line with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, which a lot of people consider the best fourth line in hockey.
In addition, he’s extremely responsible defensively. Trotz puts him out there for a lot of defensive assignments. He takes big face-offs and he kills penalties. When Cizikas is out of the line-up, the Islanders have a harder time rolling four lines and it causes players like Leo Komarov to eat up more minutes. Not an ideal situation for the Isles. Cizikas will be a game-time decision on Sunday.
All that being said, Trotz isn’t the only coach who didn’t like the way Game Three unfolded.
Immediately following the final buzzer, Jon Cooper of the Lightning sounded off with the following quote, “We handed that one to them. It was gift wrapped."
Doesn’t sound like a coach who was happy with his team and the mistakes they made, and you can’t really blame him. If you watch Brock Nelson’s goal with under three and a half minutes to go, you’ll see Nelson wide open in front of the net where he has plenty of time to pick a corner on Andrei Vasilevskiy. You just can’t leave a talented player that much space late in the third period of a tied Conference Final game.
I expect both coaches will instill game plans that clean up their team’s sloppiness. Trotz knows the Islanders can’t win a game where they exchange chances with the Lightning, who have more talent up and down their line-up than the Islanders, who are more of a grinding team.
In addition, Brayden Point missed Game Three and is questionable for Game Four. Point has probably been the Lightning’s best player in these playoffs and he’s the catalyst on the top line with Nikita Kucherov. Anthony Cirelli is a nice player, but he can’t hold Point’s jock-strap.
If Point misses another game, the Lightning will be without a true difference maker.
This is also an afternoon game. These teams are playing each other less than 48 hours after Game Three. Afternoon games are already typically slower in pace, but after the physicality we saw on Friday the legs might take even longer to get going.
It seems like Varlamov has rebounded after almost losing the starting job a week ago in net for the Isles. Vasilevskiy has been solid throughout these playoffs and is recognized as one of the best goaltenders in the league.
Even though two of the games have gone well over the total, I think we see these team’s try and clean it up and we get a slower, more methodical Game Four.
PICK: Under 5.5 goals @ -136