You don’t have to have invented the game to be able to distill this 3-1 Eastern Conference finals lead the Lightning have taken over the Islanders with Sunday’s 4-1 Game 4 victory to its most elemental point(s).
And those are the ones recorded by the unleashed Tampa Bay top line of Brayden Point between Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat … and the ones not recorded by the Islanders first line of Mat Barzal between Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle.
There was another goal and assist on Sunday from Point, who rejoined the lineup after missing Game 3 with an unspecified lower-body issue; another goal and assist from Palat; another pair of assists from Kucherov. There was nothing on the board from Barzal, Lee or Eberle.
Which is a continuation of a theme.
Through four games of this series that could end on Tuesday, Palat and Point each have three goals with Kucherov adding two. That makes eight. On the other side, Eberle has one goal, that one on the power play in the opening minutes of Game 1. That is the sum, if not necessarily the substance, of the Islanders’ first line.
Oh, and the 8-1 imbalance in goals is not just a reflection of one side finishing with the other one just not able to capitalize. According to NaturalStattrick.com, Point, Kucherov and Palat have combined for 28 scoring chances at five-on-five as compared to an aggregate 16 for the Islanders’ trio.
Teams do not lose for one reason and one reason alone, but when your presumptive best players are not anywhere close to that at this point of the tournament, well, one need not be Anatoly Tarasov, Lou Lamoriello or Hercule Poirot to understand where fingers could be pointed (if anyone were into that sort of thing).
“I think you’re pretty right on [about] that,” Barry Trotz responded when asked if the imbalance in first-line production explains the state of the series. “Their first line is probably about a plus-six or -seven in this series. They’ve put a mark on us in a couple of games here.”
Game 1 aside, the Islanders have hardly been dominated. But they have been forced into critical mistakes by a relentlessly structured outfit that is supporting its first line. The Lamoriello-Trotz Islanders are famous for their grind, but the dirty little secret about them is how dangerous their upper-end talent can be when they get into open ice.
But Barzal has been contained most of this series. Eberle has had some chances around the net but hasn’t been pinpoint on opportunities to shoot or dish. Lee seems a step and/or a second late to the spot in front. The Islanders have not been able to flaunt their skill. Well, few other than Brock Nelson, who continued his breakout postseason by scoring his team’s lone goal, his ninth of the playoffs.
“It’s probably a little bit of themselves, probably a little bit of the opposition,” Trotz said of his Trio Not So Grande. “They’re getting constant attention and they’ve had some looks but they haven’t found the back of the net enough for us, especially at five-on-five.
“Jordan got a power-play goal the first game, but we’re going to have to get some production there. We’re best when we get production up and down our lineup. So, we will. We’ve got one life left and I know a lot about this group.
“This group has invested too much to not give their best effort on Tuesday.”
Nobody is doubting the effort part. It’s the execution that’s killing the Islanders on both sides of the puck. But there have been a few too many poor decisions with and without the puck, a few too many deficiencies in coverage, including Barzal on Point for the 3-1 goal, a few too many times standing and watching the Lightning’s marquee players create time and space.
Eberle’s Game 1 power-play goal came at 4:33 of the first period and was scored 1:44 into his team’s first man-advantage of the series. The Islanders have gone 0-for-13 since in 28:05 of power-play time. Perhaps that’s why Trotz went with the second unit to open the club’s man-advantage at 13:52 of the third period, down 3-1, while keeping Barzal, Lee and Eberle on the bench following a television timeout.
It is not easy. Tampa Bay has essentially been the NHL’s best team since October 2018. The Lightning fell behind 1-0 at 11:27 of the second period and were ahead 2-1, 27 seconds later. They are deep, disciplined and diverse in their attack and in their ability to contain the opposition.
Barzal, Lee and Eberle have noticed.