By Jeff Capellini
Somewhere between the Panthers deserving full marks and the Islanders failing to show up lies the truth.
The teams’ opening-round playoff series is now a best-of-three after Florida left Brooklyn with a 2-1 victory Wednesday night, a result that really wasn’t all that indicative of what actually happened out on the Barclays Center ice.
The Islanders were pretty much dominated physically from the opening faceoff. If not for Thomas Greiss in goal, the hosts could have been down by three or four after the first 20 minutes alone, instead of the game being scoreless well into the second period.
The Atlantic Division champion Panthers started the game with a determination that was missing during the latter stages of their overtime loss in Game 3 on Sunday. They skated circles around the Islanders, and frustrated them with perfect execution of their 1-4 trapping defense, an approach similar to what the Pittsburgh Penguins used successfully on the Rangers in Game 3 of their series Tuesday.
The Isles were still in single digits in shots on goal well into the middle period and their shot attempts, an advanced stat many swear reveals the true realities of any game, were frighteningly low. Throughout the contest, New York showed a stubbornness in trying to skate with the puck through and around the trap instead of dumping pucks deep and battling with more regularity.
“They won the Atlantic Division for a reason. They are a big team. They try to use their size well,” Islanders captain John Tavares said after the game. “We gotta overcome that. We gotta find ways to make it tough on them, not let them bog us down.
“It’s not the result we wanted. It’s not a good enough game from us. We had a great opportunity, and we didn’t take advantage of it,” Tavares added.
Despite being outplayed badly, the Islanders still had a chance to win the game. After Tavares roofed a power-play goal with 16 seconds left in the second to tie the game, the building was rocking, an atmosphere that should have carried over into the third.
But it didn’t.
Though it figured to be a tight-checking final 20 minutes, the Isles inexplicably came out of the locker room tentative and as a result got worked over by their opponents. They were constantly getting pinned in their own end and were forced to either loft the puck out in desperation or ice it outright, clear signs that they had little idea how to break the Panthers’ forecheck.
The crowd was rapidly being taken out of the game, and when Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic whistled a wrister through a screen and by Greiss with a little more than 10 minutes left, Barclays went from sporadic murmurs to stone silence.
Though the Isles did eventually ramp up their intensity, they ran into a familiar problem. On top of failing on a late power play, they just couldn’t muster sustained pressure against Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo. That lack of offense, regardless of how well Florida bottled up the neutral zone, ate at Islanders coach Jack Capuano after the game.
“You’re not going to win many games when you score one goal,” Capuano said. “We have one line (Tavares, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo) creating all our offense right now. We have to find a way like we did in Florida when we had secondary scoring and the other night here when we had secondary scoring.”
So the Islanders now find themselves in a bit of a no-man’s land. Sure, they won Game 1 in Florida, but on that night they seemed to catch the Panthers napping defensively. Since then the ice has mostly been tilted in one direction and has gotten smaller and smaller on the few occasions when the Isles have been able to mount sustained pressure in the offensive end.
From an emotional standpoint, the momentum is now in the Panthers’ corner. The BB&T Center will likely be jacked up Friday night for Game 5. Expect many of those empty seats in the lower bowl during Games 1 and 2 to be filled in support of a team that has outskated its opponent from the start of this series as it tries to steamroll its way back to Brooklyn.
The Islanders, to a man and to their credit, said all the right things following Wednesday’s loss, but that type of rhetoric is getting kind of old. New York has now failed to string together consecutive postseason wins in its last 11 chances.
“I said it after we won our last games, you gotta turn around. You gotta turn the page. Whether it’s a win or a loss at this point of the season, you got no time to dwell on it,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “I just think we have to keep working. We know it’s hard to win games at this time of the year.”
The fans know it just as well. The Islanders have not won a postseason series since 1993, and it would only be natural for their supporters to assume that Wednesday’s defeat marked the beginning of the end once again. The fact remains that the Panthers have been the better team in this series, both territorially and physically. The Isles coming out for the third period of Game 4 with so much to potentially gain but with so little fire has to be a massive red flag.
The one thing working in the Islanders’ favor is the resilience they have shown all season. They often won games they should have lost during the first 82 games, and did so again in Games 1 and 3 of this series. But how long can they continue to play to the best of their abilities for only stretches at a time? Teams get away with that type of play during the regular season, but the postseason, as we all know, is a different animal, especially the longer series go.
Tavares and Greiss have been tremendous, but this team needs to be more than a singular star and a stud backup goalie playing at the top of their respective games.
The Islanders simply have to unzip themselves and step out as a team with purpose the rest of the way, or it will be an offseason from hell once again.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet