Exactly one year ago today, members of the Tampa Bay Lightning lined up for their 2019-20 team physicals.
And they were prepared to hit the ice for the first time as a team the next day.
A year later, the team isn’t preparing for the 2020-21 season. Instead, it’s preparing for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals with the New York Islanders.
It’s the same team in the same “season” approaching a different NHL calendar year. But the goal remains the same.
The Bolts are not only trying to erase the embarrassment felt last season, but they are working toward winning the sports world’s greatest prize.
A prize that has eluded Tampa Bay since the 2003-04 season.
The Stanley Cup.
And as the Lightning approach Game 3 in the Eastern Conference Finals with a 2-0 series lead, Lightning fans can safely say, “So far, so good.”
Game 3: The Build Up
On the heels of an emphatic 8-2 victory in Game 1, the Lightning did in Game 2 what they’ve done all postseason. They found a way to win a game that they very well could have lost.
The first 18 minutes and 24 seconds of the game indicated that Game 2 would be far different from Game 1.
First, the Lightning surrendered a goal just one minute and 24 seconds into the game when Matt Martin found a loose puck in front of the net and beat an unsuspecting Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning rebounded, though, and played evenly with the Islanders for the next few minutes. But then disaster struck.
Five minutes and 55 seconds into the game, alternate captain Alex Killorn earned a five-minute major penalty and an ejection after a disturbing hit on the Islanders’ second-leading playoff scorer, Brock Nelson.
#GoBolts Alex Killorn hit on #Isles Brock Nelson
5 minute major pic.twitter.com/tPqC23mt8r
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@TheReplayGuy) September 10, 2020
The Bolts endured the ensuing penalty kill, after giving up five shots on goal and blocking three. But they failed to swing the momentum.
The Islanders dominated play, as Tampa failed to register a shot on goal for 13 minutes and 14 seconds, which included a power play.
But then Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman found some good fortune.
On Tampa Bay’s first shot since before the Killorn penalty, Hedman’s shot from the point took a fortuitous bounce off the near post and beat netminder Semyon Varlamov.
The score remained even heading into the first intermission, despite Tampa Bay being outshot 13-4.
In the second period, the Lightning suffered another significant loss. This time it was the club’s postseason scoring leader, Brayden Point.
Just as the Islanders’ Brock Nelson returned to the bench after the injury he suffered at the hands of Alex Killorn, Brayden Point left the game with an apparent lower-body injury.
Third Period Heroics
While the loss of Point was more than a major blow, the Lightning persevered.
Despite playing with just nine forwards in the third period, Tampa Bay found a way to steal Game 2.
Veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh sent a cross-seam pass from the far side boards to a wide-open Nikita Kucherov for the one-timer.
Nikita Kucherov with 7.8 seconds left. Jon Cooper is fired up. pic.twitter.com/xVOo1lNxs9
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 10, 2020
That late Kucherov goal clinched Game 2 for the Lightning and likely felt like a sucker-punch to Islanders’ bench boss, Barry Trotz. After all, he just watched his team squander a 38-second, 5-on-3 power play opportunity earlier in the third period.
A quick look at the box score shows that the Lightning stole this game. They went 0-3 on the power play, lost 58 percent of the face-offs, and were outshot 28-21. Luckily for Tampa Bay, the Islanders went 0-4 on the power play and turned the puck over 23 times.
Now, the Islanders face an 0-2 series deficit against a team that has achieved a 12-3 record, with a six-game winning streak, in the Toronto and Edmonton playoff bubbles.
Game 3 Expectations
Heading into the playoffs, the Lightning boasted the NHL’s third-best record. And after besting last season’s villains, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in five games and the President’s Trophy winners, the Boston Bruins, in five games, Tampa Bay is displaying the unmatched level of depth present on its roster.
With nine former first-round draft picks, four second-rounders, and five third-rounders, head coach Jon Cooper is more than blessed with high-end to elite talent throughout the lineup.
With that much firepower, it’s no wonder the Bolts have outscored their opponents in the first three rounds 43-25. But with the continued absence of captain Steven Stamkos and the chance that the club’s second-leading scorer might not play in Game 3, the Lightning will have to rely heavily on the club’s aforementioned depth.
Coop says Steven Stamkos is still not available and will not play in our Eastern Conference Final series against the Islanders.
He says that he will update that status if something changes. #TBLvsNYI
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) September 6, 2020
While expectations are certainly high for former MVP Nikita Kucherov and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, guys like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Anthony Cirelli will need to factor into the offensive production to sustain the team’s success.
Wow. Tyler Johnson (@tjohnny09) out here feeding beauty dishes. pic.twitter.com/wOIRYJIXbp
— NHL (@NHL) March 8, 2020
Additionally, the Bolts will need to continue to receive point production from the blue line.
Victor Hedman, seven goals and six assists, is the third-leading scorer for Tampa Bay and he will likely need to continue to appear in the goal column should the Lightning have to play without Point. Meanwhile, Kevin Shattenkirk has played quite well in the offensive zone, pitching in a goal and eight assists. Add in a healthy Ryan McDonagh, and the Bolts defensemen are poised to offer sound defensive play while contributing to the scoresheet.
The Pesky Islanders
Even after a humbling 8-2 loss in Game 1 and a heartbreaking loss in Game 2, expect the Islanders to hit the ice in Game 3 with a lot of energy.
Head coach Barry Trotz has been there and done that.
Barry Trotz on #tblightning holding a 2-0 lead: "This series is really close to flipping." Believes a few adjustments could be the difference
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) September 10, 2020
Like Jon Cooper, Trotz boasts a Calder Cup from his days with the now-defunct Portland Pirates. But unlike Cooper, Trotz can boast a Stanley Cup.
In fact, on his way to the 2018 Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, Trotz erased an 0-2 deficit to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and a 3-2 deficit to Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Finals.
Now, he may not have future Hall-of-Famers Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom at his disposal this time around, but he does have the young scoring phenom Matt Barzal and the savvy services of veterans Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle.
To turn the tides in this series, the Islanders must focus on the aspect of the game that hindered them in Game 2. They must convert on the power play.
Eleven of the Islanders’ 57 postseason goals have come on the power play, with Anders Lee netting three of them.
And while the Islanders tied Colorado for the most even-strength goals since the playoffs began, Tampa Bay’s depth makes it unlikely that the Islanders will be able to consistently outscore the Lightning without burning some goals with the man advantage.
Game 3 will likely play a major factor in deciding this series. Teams that have taken a commanding 3-0 series lead in a playoff history have won 98 percent of the time.
However, four teams of the 196 that have faced 3-0 series deficits have mounted a series-winning comeback.
The 1975 New York Islanders are one of those four clubs.
That team won four straight games over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the quarterfinals.
Don’t miss a second of the action, tune into 98.1 FM – 850 AM WRUF at 7:30 p.m. to hear it.