The New York Islanders played great hockey in their 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game One of the Stanley Cup Semifinal. The Lightning didn’t look to be at their best, though, lacking the same urgency and fight we saw from them last year.
Remember, there are some real, Grade-A Assholes on that team. Things may heat up considerably in Game Two tonight.
Here are some notes on Game One:
1. Power Play Zone Entries
The Islanders failed to convert on any of their three power plays in Game One. They did manage some offensive zone time in their six minutes on the man advantage; most of it came directly off offensive zone faceoff wins.
Once Tampa got that first clear, it felt like the power play was all but over. That’s because the Islanders struggled mightily to enter the offensive zone with possession.
On the penalty kill, the Lightning play one up and three back in the neutral zone, so they always have three guys spread out across the blue line. They give the Islanders almost no space to carry the puck in; there are always two penalty-killers converging on the puck-carrier at the point of entry.
Here are some screenshots of how the Tampa penalty kill stacked their blue line in Game One.
So when there’s no space to carry the puck in, you might want to try dumping it in and retrieving it that way. The Lightning are actually more susceptible to yielding possession on a dump-in when all four guys are positioned so high up towards the blue line.
NBC commentator Eddie Olczyk pointed this out several times during the broadcast.
It’s still possible to carry the puck in against this defense, but you have a smaller margin for error; your passes, timing and spacing need to be perfect.
On their second power play, Mat Barzal did dump the puck in on one entry, and it led directly to the Isles’ first PP shot on goal. Andrei Vasilevsky kicked that Noah Dobson shot out into the neutral zone, and from there, with Tampa unable to fully recover back up to hold their blue line, the Islanders were able to carry it right back in and spend the next 40-plus seconds with the puck in the offensive zone.
Olczyk took that Barzal dump-in as proof the Islanders made the adjustment to dumping it in, but on their third power play, they continued trying to carry the puck into the zone. It’s all in the video below:
What’s surprising to me about all of this is Tampa did the same exact thing in last year’s series. The Lightning stacked the blue line the same way and the Isles kept trying to carry it in, to (almost) no avail. (They did have a few successful carry-ins later in the series, but on the whole, they were ineffective on their PP entries.)
In the 2020 conference final series, the Islanders went 2-for-19 on the power play (10.5%) (Tampa went 4-for-21 (19%)). Most of those games were close and the series could have turned out differently had the Isles potted one or two more power-play goals.
I hope the Isles incorporate at least a few dump-ins on their power play entries moving forward.
2. Flop of the Day
Late in the third period of Game One, Brock Nelson was called for a high-sticking penalty after he shoved Nikita Kucherov in the chest. Kucherov flopped magnificently on the play, successfully fooling the referee into thinking he got hit in the face.
This was phenomenal acting by the floptastic Russian. Note the effortless way with which he so enthusiastically snaps his head back; I almost get whiplash myself just from watching it.
And so it is with great honor I present the Flop of the Day award to Nikita Kucherov! Congratulations, Nikita. I knew you had it in you. Seriously, I did. Ever since this floperific flop you pulled off in Game Two last year, I just knew you were Flop of the Day material.
Congratulations on this most prestigious honor, you flopping bastard.
What I appreciate most about this Islanders team is the complete and unwavering willingness of every last player to sacrifice for the sake of the team.
Sacrifice comes in many forms. It can be a gifted offensive player changing the way he plays, sacrificing scoring opportunities (and points) in order to be more defensively responsible. It can mean sacrificing ice time, or laying out to block a shot, or playing on your off-side.
It can also mean taking a hit to make a play. We’ve all heard this phrase many times in hockey. Here’s an example of it.
In the following clip, Adam Pelech gets hit hard twice in 12 seconds. Both times, he gets absolutely plastered by a Lightning player and knocked onto his ass. He does so willingly so he can be strong on the puck and make sure to keep it away from the opposing player.
On either play, Pelech could have bailed out to try to avoid getting laid out. It’s not like there appeared to be any imminent threat of a Lightning goal had he ceded his positional advantage, right? The Isles could have, and probably would have, been just fine had Pelech acted differently in these two spots.
These are just little plays, made throughout the course of a hockey game, and they mean everything. I haven’t seen a single Islander be unwilling to do what Pelech did twice here: put himself in harm’s way to help the team, even in the smallest of ways.
Now, watch this clip of two Lightning defensemen going back for puck retrievals in their defensive zone:
The defensemen in this clip are Erik Cernak (#81) and Mikhail Sergachev (#98). Both guys bail out early because they know Matt Martin is incoming with a chance to lay them out. And these defensemen — like all NHL defensemen — know with complete, absolute certainty that Matt Martin does not pass up any opportunity to throw a hit.
So Cernak tries reaching for the puck to retrieve it while evading Martin. What he does is the opposite of “being strong on the puck.” It’s the same with Sergachev on the second play. These guys both should have slowed down enough so as to make sure they could move the puck away from danger, and they both rushed it because, hey, why get hit by Matt Martin when you can not get hit by Matt Martin instead?
Personally, I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to get hit by Matt Martin, either. But in the playoffs, you kinda just have to take it sometimes. The way Adam Pelech was willing to take it on that second-period shift.
On Sunday afternoon, the Islanders were willing to sacrifice, to pay the price for a playoff win; the Lightning were not.
To me, that was the difference in Game One.