The debate before the Eastern Conference Final mostly centered around who would start in goal for the New York Islanders.
But now, after an 8-2 blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1, it might not matter as much about who is in net as much as what defensive changes the Islanders can make.
After allowing only 16 shots in a shutout in Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Islanders were outshot and out-attempted by Tampa Bay.
The Islanders have, by and large, been a force and dominant at 5-on-5 during the playoffs. But with the speed and forecheck that Tampa possessed, it was a different story in the Conference Finals opener.
The quick transition between series didn’t help and New York didn’t make enough adjustments to the opponent’s speed. Tampa Bay stretched out the game and the Islanders lost battles along the walls.
While the Islanders caught a few unlucky breaks, like Brock Nelson’s breakaway miss in the first period, Tampa controlled play for big chunks of time and overall held a 53.85 Corsi percentage (per Natural Stat Trick) during 5-on-5 situations.
Brock Nelson hits the side of the net on a shorthanded breakaway before Tampa answers with a goal pic.twitter.com/EwAHqjjaDV
— Andrew Battifarano (@AndrewAtBatt) September 8, 2020
Sure, the Islanders had tired legs from a seven-game semis series, but Tampa took advantage of that and thoroughly controlled play in all situations during the third period. With 24 attempts to the Islanders’ 10, the game slipped away quickly.
It wasn’t just the totality of chances, though, as Tampa garnered 11 total high danger chances in the final period and the Islanders recorded three.
On an individual level, Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield struggled defensively as both yielded net negative Corsi relative percentages. Johnny Boychuk and rookie Noah Dobson could be available in case Barry Trotz wants to make lineup changes. Dobson, however, hasn’t played since the restart and Boychuk has been out since the Florida Panthers series.
The Islanders did get their chances, though, especially in the second period. The final score might not fully indicate how the game was played, but Tampa outplayed New York for long stretches.
“They ended up scoring on almost all their chances,” Trotz said on Tuesday. “If you look at the analytics of the game, it was probably closer than an 8-2 game. It doesn’t feel good when you’re sitting there and the score is 8-2. The only analytics that matters is the scoreboard.”
The Islanders discussed just putting aside what happened on a forgettable night.
“They were able to stretch us out a little bit and create some time and space at the top of the zone,” Devon Toews told reporters Tuesday. “We kinda struggled just defending that and reading it a little. There’s obviously a few things we like to do down low just to take away time and space. We weren’t quite as efficient at that as we usually are, and I think it showed.”
Part of the problem was the slow start, giving up a goal 1:14 into the game and then two more during the first period. But even as the Islanders rebounded in the second and limited Tampa’s opportunities, they hurt themselves with continual trips to the penalty box.
On the penalty kill six times overall, the special teams unit only stopped Tampa’s high-energy power-play unit three times. Staying out of the box is always paramount, but Tampa’s man-advantage has so far converted at a 22 percent clip (second-best of remaining playoff teams). So it should become priority one for the Islanders to play at even strength.
There was a noticeable lack of pushback, and Toews said Tuesday the team felt it on the ice. There’s hope the day off can provide the New York Islanders a much-needed rest and preparation day.
“In that 4-0 game (against the Flyers), we came out pretty hot,” Toews added. “That was something we focused on a lot lately, was our starts and (Monday) that start wasn’t really there. It just put us behind the eight ball for the game and we couldn’t really recover from it. Whether it’s travel or just not being prepared, not ready for the game, whatever it is.
“We just chalk that up as a loss and move on.”
As for the goaltending situation, Barry Trotz does have an interesting choice to make. Thomas Greiss allowed three goals on nine shots, but Semyon Varlamov didn’t give much of a confidence boost in giving up five more.
Trotz hasn’t decided on who will get the Game 2 start yet. He attributed missed assignments leading to open skaters and odd-man rushes, and in turn, more goals.
“Our tracking protocols were a little bit off, just caught in between a little bit, not sharp,” Trotz said. “To me, that’s a sign of a little mental focus, mental fatigue that we weren’t as sharp.
“This team is much better and I know they’ll respond.”