Though they gave up an early goal for the fifth time in their playoffs, the New York put themselves in unfamiliar territory by carrying a big lead through much of their first meeting with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The result was a 5-3 win, with little sign of fatigue from the Isles after they finished their last series with two double-overtime games.
Thomas Greiss continued his excellent playoff with 33 saves, John Tavares continued his pace with a goal and an assist, and the line of Shane Prince (two goals for the Artist Formerly Known As), Brock Nelson and prodigal Ryan Strome (two assists each) combined for two goals to give the Isles a 3-1 lead by the end of the first period.
A late Lightning surge in the third period made it close, uncomfortably so at times, but Greiss held strong.
It was hardly a great start for the Islanders. Neither team was dominant, but the Lightning were more assertive and had the first few shots.
They also struck first, on a breakdown in coverage by the Isles and a goal that won't have put Ryan Strome in the coaching staff's good graces. Strome threw a check in the Lightning zone that missed his target, and as the Lightning zig-zagged on their zone entry, he was late getting to Ondrej Palat, the trailing player who took a great feed from Jonathan Drouin to beat Thomas Greiss from the high slot.
But the Lightning's 1-0 lead, achieved at 3:05, didn't last three minutes.
Cizikas Hit on Condra Creates Early Bad Blood
In the interim, Casey Cizikas threw a vicious but (barely) legal on Erik Condra in the corner that knocked Condra out of the game. Condra was at an awkward distance from the corner boards as he passed the puck, and Cizikas' check sent him flying backward to the part where the boards curve and become harder to brace against. (Any feelings of guilt about the heaviness of Cizikas' check could be eased by remembering how former Ranger Ryan Callahan plays.)
Whether there was any "momentum" factor or not from that hit and the Lightning's loss of a defenseman, the Islanders got a good bounce to start their comeback. On decent pressure from the Isles, Travis Hamonic picked up a puck ringing around the boards and slung it toward Ben Bishop, who was screened by Kyle Okposo. The puck dropped through Bishop's pads for an equalizer at 5:44.
Isles Take the Lead Late in the 1st
The Islanders had a couple unsuccessful power plays before taking a lead on two late goals with identical scoring lines: Shane Prince from Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson. Prince's first goal was a great pass across the crease by Strome, though Prince's lucky may have been a little lucky to slide on the ice through Bishop's pads.
That gave the Isles a 2-1 lead at 17:28. They extended it with just three seconds left in the first period when the Lightning, including Ben Bishop, checked off. Strome fed from behind the net to Prince, who scored far high corner over Bishop.
It's strange: Ben Bishop is a very good goalie, rightly in consideration for the Vezina and supported for that award by reporters that cover his team. Yet, there have been times where the Islanders more than have his number...more like he's just looked bad against them.
Tonight his reactions on several goals were slow, almost casual. His stick position on Prince's second goal to finish the first period was puzzling, as if he was preparing for a poke check to block a pass but then didn't react at all when that pass went to the circle instead of across his crease.
Bishop Bounced, Greiss Stays Stellar
The goal that bumped Bishop from the game came on the power play, though was an atypical power play goal: John Tavares simply carried in, fired from the top of the left wing circle, and beat Bishop on his near post. That ended Bishop's night just nine minutes into the second period, having conceded four goals on 13 shots.
The Isles tested Andrei Vasilevskiy a little bit early on, but otherwise the rest of the second and the early part of the third settled into a game where both teams played as if the outcome was inevitable. Things didn't pick up again until the Lightning got back on the board, when Nikita Kucherov converted at 7:41 on a great cross-ice feed from Matt Carle.
Kucherov's goal came after great pressure from the Lightning, and it inspired them to not let up. They poured it on for the next 10 minutes, and once again Thomas Greiss was the reason the Isles held on to their gains. Greiss had been key in the first period too, in particular stopping Alex Killorn and Palat on chances where they broke in all alone. He kept things safe in the dying seconds of the second period, too, including a breathtaking toe save as time expired.
But the saves Greiss made as the Lightning pressed for more late in the game were too numerous to detail. When they say you need great goaltending to win in the playoffs, even with a three-goal lead, this is what they mean.
Capuano Gets a Shiner
Isles coach Jack Capuano left the bench for a few minutes after taking a puck off of Strome's shinguard and right to the face. That thrust Doug Weight into the head role with the forwards, while Bob Corkum came to the bench to provide a third man with Weight and Greg Cronin. Capuano returned for the final couple of minutes, making him plus-3 on the night.
The Lightning Make it Scary
Greiss was finally beaten for a third goal on a crazy series of bounces, after a Lightning power play expired but by fluke and luck the puck wasn't cleared. It got caught in a Lightning player's equipment for several beats while everyone kind of wondered if there might, you know, be a whistle. Instead it finally dropped, an Isles clearing attempt failed, a shot bounced off Johnny Boychuk's skate and was caught by Valtteri Filppula, who put it down, swatted at it, and got his own rebound that finally fluttered over Greiss.
The Lightning pulled Vasilevsky for a sixth attacker after an icing with 1:39 left to go.
After a bit of pressure off the ensuing faceoff, the fourth line (with Nikolay Kulemin on instead of Matt Martin) sealed it. Casey Cizikas got the clear and fed Cal Clutterbuck at the Lightning blueline for an empty-net goal.
It was tighter than you'd expect it to be after they built a 4-1 lead, but as tight as it should've been given the closeness of these two teams and the way Bishop's play enabled the outsized Isles lead.
In other words, even if the Isles had held on to keep the score 4-1, it shouldn't change expectations for a very tight series.
And now, two days off in Florida before Game 2 Saturday. Then two more days...it will be a long series no matter how many games it takes.