Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final wasn’t the high-event game that might excite out-of-area viewers, but the New York Islanders but got the job done.
In the 2-1 double overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Islanders were outshot and out-attempted, but the defense largely contained Tampa Bay’s high-powered offense. Without Casey Cizikas for the rest of the playoffs, the Islanders used just 11 forwards and plugged in seven defensemen.
Semyon Varlamov was sharp with 36 saves on 37 chances and the Islanders defense got a little extra breather with Johnny Boychuk eating up 12-plus minutes. It helped defensively and also led to the Islanders mixing-and-matching their offensive lines a little bit more.
And looking forward to Thursday night’s Game 6, it could be a useful strategy again for the Islanders to limit Tampa Bay scoring chances. New York will get last change, meaning head coach Barry Trotz can do a little bit more specific tailoring to whatever Tampa Bay head coach John Cooper puts on the ice.
Matt Martin said Wednesday the lineup changes puts a little extra pressure on the centers, but at this point of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s a “whatever it takes,” mentality.
“Obviously with Casey going down it’s changed the dynamic of our lineup a little bit,” Matt Martin said prior to the game. “I didn’t mind it at all. Obviously (Boychuk) coming in brought some energy, that kind of grit on the back end. Blocking shots, physicality and just kind of a veteran presence. Not only on the ice, but on the bench and in the locker room.”
In a game that lasted nearly five periods, the Islanders recorded just 24 shots, the fewest any team has put on net in a game of that length since 1967. Mathew Barzal played over 28 minutes and Jean-Gabriel Pageau logged over 26 minutes, leading the forwads. Trotz said getting guys extra minutes could be beneficial for their energy levels even if it didn’t produce better offense in Game 5.
“We went with four centermen and then went down to three for a while,” Trotz said. “Obviously power play, penalty kill can dictate ice time a little bit. If you’re in that rotation, I think it helps everyone’s rhythm.”
But, in spite of little offense, the Islanders limited Tampa Bay to 14 high danger scoring chances (per Natural Stat Trick). That’s the second-fewest the team has yielded in this series only behind Game 2’s 12 high danger chances allowed. For most of Game 5, the Islanders kept Tampa Bay out of prime scoring areas. This is an ideal defensive strategy the Islanders might want to replicate again to force Tampa Bay to the outside.
“This time of year it’s every man up and we’re ready to go,” Andy Greene said. “I’ve done seven defensemen a few times before and you just gotta make sure there’s a lot of communication on the bench. There’s not a normal rotation where you’re always going with your partner or with the same guy.”
In terms of lineup adjustments, Tampa Bay might have to make more in its front end as well. Brayden Point, who’s missed two games and chunks of two others, is a question mark and game-time decision again. His 25 points are tied for the lead among all skaters in the playoffs, so without him, Tampa Bay would be missing a key cog in its offense.
On the Islanders side, Greene said whether Point is in or out doesn’t drastically change New York’s defensive scheme.
“We’re in a situation where we have to win to stay here,” Greene said. “It’s exciting for us, it’s a great opportunity, it’s a great challenge. Obviously (Point) is a top player in this league. He brings a lot of different qualities for their team, a little bit of their engine. For us, when he’s out there you have to make sure you know where he is and what he can do.
“We have to play our game and be ready. It’s going to be a good challenge.