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Islanders’ push toward playoffs hits speed bump in loss to Lightning

TAMPA, Fla. — Just as the playoffs began to look inevitable for the Islanders, there came the team that twice prevented them from playing for a Stanley Cup.

Much as both the Islanders and Lightning have changed over in a nearly 24-month span, you still can imagine members of the Isles uttering the name like Seinfeld spitting out Newman’s: “Tampa!”

After a blowout 5-0 loss at Amalie Arena on Saturday, the Islanders still haven’t beaten the Lightning since Game 6 of the 2021 NHL semifinals — a match that took place at Nassau Coliseum, in which Anthony Beauvillier scored the overtime winner.

Good memories and all, but with Tampa visiting UBS Arena on Thursday to complete the season series, that would be an ideal time to break this six-game albatross.

The nadir of this one came at 11:45 of the second period when the Lightning forced Lane Lambert into an action so rare that it last happened 370 days ago: Pulling Ilya Sorokin from a game. No prizes for guessing who it was against that time.

Nikita Kucherov scores a goal on Ilya Sorokin during the Islanders' 5-0 loss to the Lightning.

That particular concession to reality (and to resting Sorokin to keep open the possibility of him starting on Sunday at Carolina) came amid a flurry of Lightning goals, with Nikita Kucherov netting a breakaway goal and Steven Stamkos making it 4-0 within two minutes.

Earlier in the second, Tanner Jeannot had deflected in a feed from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare after the Islanders lost him in the slot.

Sorokin left having stopped just 17 of 21 shots, but the goaltender was a victim of circumstance more than anything.

To pour it on even more, Brayden Point added a fifth goal for Tampa at 13:26 of the third, this one with Semyon Varlamov in nets for the Islanders.

Lightning star Steven Stamkos celebrates after scoring a goal during the Islanders' loss.

The Islanders went through a veritable checklist of how to lose a hockey game. They failed to generate a forecheck.

They got pushed around — an extreme rarity for this team. Repeatedly, they allowed stretch passes to go through the neutral zone and for most of the game, they got forced into playing chip-and-change hockey, entirely on the back foot.

Tampa Bay began to put its fingerprints on the game midway through the first period, suddenly in constant possession of the puck.

The Islanders couldn’t find a way to break out of the defensive zone or gain control of neutral ice.

Ryan Pulock battles the Lightning's Tanner Jeannot for the puck during the Islanders' loss.

That was never going to end well and when Mikhail Sergachev’s shot from the left point banked off Romanov and past Sorokin at 17:53 of the period, the Islanders began to get their comeuppance.

The Islanders had enough of a cushion in the first wild-card spot to deal with a loss, even with the Panthers beating the Blue Jackets.

They did get help with the Penguins losing to the Bruins, so Pittsburgh remains three points behind the Islanders with a game in hand, while the Panthers have moved into the second wild-card spot, two points behind the Isles.

Even amid a run of good vibes for the Islanders, though, a loss like this snaps them back to reality.

Locking up a playoff berth should be a formality at this point. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Not with a game in Raleigh on Sunday off a 23-hour turnaround, and not with a match against You-Know-Who back at home on Thursday.

The combined score between the Islanders and Lightning since Beauvillier closed the Coliseum: A cool 23-9.

You can guess in favor of who.

The best course of action for the Islanders, then, might be to win on Sunday.