Islanders shut down Lightning to draw first blood in semifinal series

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders scores against Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup semifinals at Amalie Arena on June 13, 2021 in Tampa

Coach Barry Trotz thought last season’s semifinal start between his Islanders and eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay wasn’t really “a fair fight”.

New York was missing a couple of key injured players — defenceman Adma Pelech and checking forward Casey Cizikas — and lacked some little advantages, such as playing at the noisy old Coliseum instead of travelling between the two Canadian bubbles.

The Isles, who lost last year’s Game 1 by an 8-2 count and chased the series from there, quickly set about correcting that on Sunday afternoon with a 2-1 road win. They jammed a hockey stick right into the spokes of the more free-wheeling defending Stanley Cup champions, overcoming Vezina Trophy favourite Andrei Vasilevskiy, the potent Lightning offence and a last-minute goal against.

In this opener at Amalie Arena, the Isles made good on their ‘unfinished business’ theme, as the Lightning, with four of the NHL’s 10 leading playoff scorers after two rounds, looked sloppy and dented Semyon Varlamov only once on 31 shots.

“Number one, we managed the puck; two, we were disciplined; three, we didn’t take unnecessary risks,” said a pleased Trotz. “I thought this was fair, more reminiscent of Games 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 last year. Both teams are pretty much the same as last year. Our guys were dialled-in and knew what they had to do.”

This was the first non-division match for either team after the 56-game regular season and in-house playoff. After a bit of a feeling-out process, the Isles slid much easier into their roles and the style that put them past Pittsburgh and Boston.

“Definitely a big one, getting off on the right foot,” said Mathew Barzal, who had New York’s opening goal. “(The Lightning) are the standard of the league. For us, we’re trying to get to that level.”

The Bolts wasted some early heroics by Vasilevskiy which should’ve given them home momentum. He was stopping everything from tips to breakaways as his teammates made it that much harder on him with lax puck management in their zone and at the New York blueline. One of their seven giveaways in the match led to Barzal’s goal halfway through the game after another of Tampa’s frequent attempts to try and jazz up their rushes.

After Steven Stamkos turned it over with a cross- ice relay, Barzal hopped off the Isles bench behind the defence to take a Josh Bailey stretch pass on his backhand. Waiting to let it go when he was almost on top of Vasilevskiy, Barzal found the five-hole. Bolts coach Jon Cooper made Stamkos sit a couple of shifts after his mistake on the play.

“Our work effort was there, our compete was there, our minds weren’t,” Cooper said. “Some of our decisions were poor. That’s what happens when you get this deep in the playoffs, with only four teams left, you need everything working in unison and we just weren’t quite there.”

Cooper cited three early penalties against his team for disrupting rhythm, even though New York didn’t score and his team’s kill generated chances. Ryan Pulock wound up driving the winner through from the blue line in the third after the Isles managed four goals in the final 11 periods of last year’s set,

Tampa Bay’s first man advantage late in the second and into the third amounted to nothing and it needed a 6-on-4 power play with 53.7 seconds to play to finally get on the board with a Brayden Point goal. The Bolts were able to pull Vasilevskiy again, but fired a couple of pucks wide in the dying seconds. They will also have to pick it up on faceoffs after just 39% success on Sunday.

This was the first time the same two teams had met in a Stanley Cup semifinal since Chicago and Los Angeles tangled in the 2013 and ’14 Western playdowns.
Game 2 is on Tuesday back at Amalie Arena.

“We knew it was going to be tight,” Stamkos said. “You have to just stick with the grinding game. On their first goal, I’m trying to make a play there and that can be the difference in the game.

“I need to be patient in that situation, I think our team realizes we have to be, both teams do. But we’ve been here before. There’s no panic in this room, we just have to realize it’s going to be extremely tight.”

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