Photo: Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers
After the Lightning showed the Islanders that they can beat them at their own game and do it better in a Game 3 2-1 victory to take a 2-1 Stanley Cup semifinals lead, the Islanders defense to a man knew they had to do something about it.
Defense makes up the Islanders identity. It’s not like the Islanders have played badly there. It’s just that the way the Lightning defense shut the Islanders offense that would make the Islanders defense envious. The Lightning never gave the Islanders room to traffic, rush or skate whatsoever in the last playoff game. It certainly opened the Islanders’ eyes.
The Islanders defense showed on Saturday night that they can close out and finish the game in preserving a 3-2 much-needed Game 4 victory at Nassau Coliseum to even the series at 2.
Ryan Pulock highlighted the Islanders defense by blocking Ryan McDonagh’s shot with three seconds left in the game. He gets the credit, but let’s not forget about his teammates that put on a master clinic in the final five minutes of the game after the Lightning scored two goals in the third period to make it a 3-2 game.
The Islanders knew the pressure was on. The saying goes there’s nothing worse than a 2-0 lead in hockey. You can say the same with a 3-0 lead. Despite the Islanders scoring three goals in the second period, the defending Stanley Cup champions never went away. Not with the playmakers they boast.
On cue, Brayden Point scored the Lightning’s first goal of the game in the third period. Of course, he did. What did you expect? It’s what he does. He scored four straight goals in four straight games of the Stanley Cup semifinals to extend his goal-scoring streak to seven games. He has nine goals in the last 10 games. It has gotten to the point now that he’s more dangerous than Nikita Kucherov. Of course, those two play in the same line together, which explains why Point serves as the beneficiary to Kucherov’s greatness.
Then, Tyler Johnson scored to cut the Islanders’ lead to 3-2.
It was crunch time for the Islanders. It was time for them to answer whether it was scoring a goal or making a defensive play or getting a big save from Semyon Varlamov. Everything was at stake. If the Islanders choked that lead and lost, they would never live this down. They could not afford to lose twice to the Lightning at their home ice. This was as close as to do or die as it got for them.
The Islanders responded by blocking Kucherov often in the third period. Scott Mayfield never gave him a chance to do anything. They made him a non-factor, which is an impressive feat in itself. Victor Hedman had his shot blocked, too. Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck provided the boom on the Lightning forwards. Most importantly, the defense made sure the Lightning were not going to the Islanders zone often. There was not much second-chance scoring for them.
The final five minutes was as best as it got for the Islanders. The Lightning played like a team with so much momentum going.
There was no doubt that the final five minutes served as a cliffhanger. Every block mattered. So did every hit. Every shot. And yes, the Islanders needed to hold their composure. The Lightning were capable of getting the Islanders unhinged.
Games like this give you a definition of what a team is all about under adversity. It determines whether a team is a champion or not. The Islanders showed so much growth from last year against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final in a sense they held their composure. They settled down after the Lightning made their own run.
This series now becomes the best-of-three. Look for the next three games to be as grueling as Saturday night was. We all know now the Lightning are just more than an offensive force, but they are a defensive force as they showed in Game 3. The Islanders showed they can be a force on defense when it has to be as they showed in Game 4.
It turns out now this series will go down to who has more gumption than skill.
On this Saturday night, the Islanders showed they had plenty of it left.