The Florida Panthers evened their first-round series with the New York Islanders in a Game 2 that was much lower scoring, and much more evenly played, than the one that opened the series. In the first two games, each team has lost with their best effort and arguably stolen a victory in the game where their opponent had the better of play.
That's inarguably the case for the Islanders, who were much better than in Game 1 but got a worse result, because hockey is just like that sometimes.
Their 3-1 loss means for the third consecutive playoff year the Islanders will return home with a series tied 1-1.
Throughout the lineup, the Isles played much better than Thursday night...with the exception of the Josh Bailey - Brock Nelson - Nikolay Kulemin line, which continued to be a disaster. They generated more offensive zone time than in Game 1, but they were still absent in their own zone, most notably when Bailey lost Nick Bjugstad on the goal that made it 2-0 in the second period, which came after they were victimized on a counter attack goal in the opening period.
The coaching staff eventually swapped Nelson with Alan Quine, who was having another solid game with Ryan Strome and Shane Prince.
Compared to Game 1 the Isles generated several more chances, had better sustained pressure in the zone, and even worked the puck better on the power play. They still passed up good shots though -- a luxurious problem after the scarcity of chances in Game 1 -- but Luongo making many more big saves may have influenced that.
Strome was one of the guilty parties on that last point: He was more active (and more used), but also passed up some after Luongo had robbed him on a one-timer.
But just like Game 1, the Panthers opened scoring early, with the hot hand Reilly Smith scoring on a big rebound 4:32 into the game. Thomas Greiss probably regrets the fat rebound there, which left Smith lots of room in the slot. Nick Bjugstad did well to draw him out with a delayed shot beforehand.
On the power play, the Panthers are clearly aware of the threat of Ryan Pulock's shot, as they kept tight to him at the expense of leaving other Islanders with space.
With a two-goal lead late in the second period, the Panthers went into a more conservative prevent mode and frankly were much better at it than the Isles were in Game 1. While the Isles had generated chances through much of the game, that slowed down considerably in the final 20 minutes.
But John Tavares is still John Tavares. With another Barclays Center-like bounce off the end boards from a Nick Leddy shot, Tavares beat Brian Campbell to the puck to swat it upstairs over Luongo to get the Isles on the board and make it 2-1 with 3:33 left in regulation.
Timeouts from both teams (first the Panthers, then the Isles a minute later) enabled Tavares to get two good shifts in what remained of the game. But the Isles weren't able to create those final golden chances -- Luongo was excellent on the night with 40 saves, but there was no Greiss-on-Jagr moment -- and Dmitry Kulikov lofted an empty netter to seal the game with 9.5 seconds left.
The Bailey/Kulemin Conundrum
I am not a Josh Bailey basher. As with Brian Strait, there is more than enough digital ink and venom spilled in his name. Plus, he's a decent player, occasionally quite good and useful and even defensively conscientious. And then...occasionally remarkably missing on seeming basic assignments. Does he think too much, get caught in indecision on defensive coverage the way he gets caught passing up shots?
Whatever the case, or the derision directed his way, he's had a terrible first two games. This kind of performance is what stirs such frustration among fans.
In a completely different way, Kulemin is also a smart hockey player who can be very effective at times. He's at his best when he's a bulldog who doesn't give up on the puck in either zone, and doesn't miss reads, and doesn't pass up chances to inflict pain.
Kulemin's doing none of those things right now though. He has been a regular part of a very effective penalty killing unit, which could very well be a factor keeping him in the lineup. But particularly with the Isles loving the effect of their "fourth" line, these two might as well be used as fourth liners.
So This is How We're Adjudicating Scrums?
The officiating hasn't had much to do in this series, but they showed impressive cluelessness with 90 seconds left in the second period. The Panthers fourth line quite obviously and deliberately initiated a scrum in front of Roberto Luongo, with Dmitry Kulikov and Aaron Ekblad leading the way.
The Isles D pair of Travis Hamonic and Nick Leddy resisted jumping in -- which would push the faceoff outside the zone -- but the officiating crew simply...never bothered to cool things of. Granted, they only have so many hands, but their failure made it truly bizarre that the fallout was roughing minors to all three forwards on both fourth lines, plus an extra for Casey Cizikas (who deserved something for his body shot to Ekblad).
Jesus. Look at this ref. Two guys on Martin, 5 on 3, Cizikas getting mugged, totally turns away bc dickshot. https://t.co/q6QKBG3usy— Rookie Example (@KeithLHHockey) April 16, 2016
If they want to punish Cizikas for throwing a punch, they should punish the Panthers for starting the whole thing and continuing to exploit the 5-on-3 advantage despite the officials' meager instructions to knock it off.
Anyway, thankfully the officiating mistakes in both of the first two games haven't really impacted the game or the outcome. It's more a thing you watch, see problems in the safety system, and know that one of these days it could cause a nuclear meltdown or financial crisis.
The series shifts to New York Sunday, for the first-ever NHL playoff game at Barclays Center.