By Lenn Robbins
No matter how you get there, a 3-1 deficit is a 3-1 deficit.
After being outplayed by what clearly is a more offensively potent Tampa Bay team, the Islanders find themselves in that daunting 3-1 hole following a 4-1 loss to the Lightning Sunday afternoon in Edmonton in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series.
The Islanders 5-3 win Friday night doesn’t mean much now that New York is one loss away from elimination; one loss away from ending what arguably has been the most fascinating run in this 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
These Islanders were the No.6 seed in the East and hadn’t been to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1993. They lost their last seven games of the regular season and 11 of the last 13. Yet here they are having taken out the No.3-seed Capitals and the No.1-seed Flyers, surging toward a date with destiny.
Lightning is striking. The No.2-seed Lightning have been building toward a Cup triumph, making it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last five seasons. They are a team of snipers; 14 players having scored at least one of the team’s 52 goals.
“Just because you’re one game away, doesn’t mean you’re in,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “You’re still one game away. We’re going to have to match an effort that we’ve watched [the Columbus Blue Jackets] give, and [the Boston Bruins] give, and I’m sure the Islanders are going to give. We’ve gone through this. We know what we have to do.”
Calm, cool, collective and cocky are these Lightning.
Of course, the series is not over, but the last and only time a team overcame a 3-1 deficit in a conference final was 2000, when the Devils rallied to oust the Flyers. They went on to win the Stanley Cup so that’s something for the Islanders to dream on.
But if Tuesday night’s Game 5 (8 p.m., NBCSN) is the last game of this remarkable season for the Islanders, they should focus on wanting to avoid feeling utterly disrespected instead of painfully disappointed.
After the Islanders Game 3 win, Cooper all but admitted his Lightning do not respect the Islanders, do not take them seriously. You wonder if they think Columbus and/or Boston were more worthy opponents.
“We handed that one to them,” Cooper said of the Islander’s win. “It was gift wrapped. … We hand-delivered a couple [chances] to them and good teams will make you pay. That’s what happened tonight.”
No chance the Islanders flat out won it?
“It’s on us,” said Cooper. “They didn’t do anything that I thought we didn’t know was coming or put us under pressure. We made some bad decisions.”
You can understand why Cooper is confident to the point of disrespectfully cocky.
After the Islanders got crushed 8-2 in Game 1 last Monday, a rout you could see coming 2,050 miles away – the distance from Toronto to Edmonton which is what the Islanders had to travel following their Game 7 win over the Flyers, Game 2 was a tossup. It ended in the most painful of fashions – a breakdown that led to a Nikita Kucherov game-winner with nine seconds left.
The Islanders won Game 3 to make the series competitive for about 48 hours. There were no fallbacks on Sunday. The Islanders weren’t travel weary and although the loss of Casey Cizikas (undisclosed injury) was a setback, both teams are about as healthy as can be expected after weeks of playoff hockey.
After Islanders took a 1-0 lead in the second period on a Brock Nelson goal, it was all Tampa Bay. The lead held for a scant 15 seconds before Blake Coleman tied it. Twelve seconds later Ondrej Palat scored what proved to be the game winner. The Islanders were outshot, 36-27. Tampa won 34-of-55 face-offs.
“Their first line put a mark on us in a couple of game here,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re all good players. They’re outstanding players. They can make plays. They go to the hard areas. … They’re high-level, elite players. You can’t give them an inch. We’ve given them too many inches.”
This is no longer about what the Islanders have given the Lightning. It’s about taking what the Lightning have refused to give the Islanders – respect.