The Islanders have found themselves in the kind of unfamiliar territory any NHL team would want to be in.
With a 3-2 win at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday night, the Islanders evened their Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Lightning at two wins apiece heading back to Tampa for Game 5, which is set for Monday at 8 p.m.
During the Eastern Conference final against the Lightning in the bubble playoffs last season, the Islanders always trailed Tampa Bay by at least one game and had their backs against the wall in the final two contests of that series.
After the teams exchanged wins through the first four games this time around, it’ll be a best-of-three to decide who will advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Saturday’s victory ensures the Islanders will get to come back to The Barn at least one more time for Game 6, which is set for Wednesday night.
The Lightning refused to go quietly Saturday despite a monster three-goal performance by the Islanders in the second period. Brayden Point, who extended his scoring streak to seven games, and Tyler Johnson both scored in the span of 2:58 early in the third period to make it a one-goal game.
Head coach Barry Trotz called a timeout and the Islanders settled down to keep the Lightning from tying the game. In the final seconds, Tampa Bay’s Ryan McDonagh spun around to maintain possession and deked Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov, but Ryan Pulock dove at the goal line to save the win.
The Islanders have been a second-period team for the entire postseason, owning a league-high plus-10 goal differential in the middle frame heading into Game 4. They added three to that number Saturday night. The Lightning gave up as many goals in the second period as they had allowed in their previous four road games combined.
To get things started, Brock Nelson sent a backhand pass to a cutting Josh Bailey, who wristed the puck home from the high slot to give the Islanders a 1-0 lead on just their seventh shot of the game at 5:30. The Coliseum crowd made sure to show Bailey their appreciation by serenading him with his signature chant.
As the Lightning tried to contain the Islanders, who were swarming, Cal Clutterbuck’s long shot from the blue line rebounded right to Mathew Barzal for the wide-open putback at 13:46. Then the Islanders’ fourth “Identity” line began to buzz, resulting in Matt Martin’s backhander that beat Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to make it a 3-0 game.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper challenged the goal for offside, but it was upheld to send Tampa Bay on its second penalty kill of the game.
After Kyle Palmieri rung the post on a 3-on-1 Islanders rush in the opening minutes, the Lightning took control and began piling on the shots for a 7-2 advantage by the first TV timeout. It prompted Trotz to bump Palmieri to the first line with Leo Komarov and Barzal for a handful of shifts in attempt to jump-start the Islanders’ offense.
While Tampa Bay emerged from the first period with a 6-2 edge in high-danger chances, the Islanders came centimeters away from opening the scoring. From the slot, Barzal sent a shot that clanged off the far post and skid across the crease, drawing an eruption from the Coliseum crowd that thought it went in.