The second round has brought us some of the most entertaining games of the playoffs. Every series has featured two teams that were pretty evenly matched on paper and whoever got the most bounces usually had the edge. You expect this as you get further into the playoffs, as the field starts to even out as the better teams advance and the weaker ones go home. The Eastern Conference matchup between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, however, differs from this trend.
This was a quick, five-game series and didn’t differ from most people’s predictions as the Lightning made short work of the Islanders. Tampa Bay went into this series as heavy favorites, having just beaten the Detroit Red Wings in five-games and being the stronger possession team at even strength all season. The Islanders pulled off a bit of an upset over the Florida Panthers in six games, largely thanks to goaltender Thomas Greiss having an unreal performance, but most didn’t give them a chance in this series. Even with Tampa Bay’s injury problems, most had them getting through this series.
The Islanders proved some critics wrong in Game 1, defeating Tampa Bay 5-3 on the road and outplaying them for the most part. Tampa responded by winning the next four, two of them coming in overtime, and looking like the even strength powerhouse they were all year. If you remember, Ben Bishop played a big role in them beating the Red Wings, so this series was a bit of a return to form for them and after the jump, we’ll look at what they did to get past the Islanders.
5v5 Shot Attempts
Tampa Bay outshot the Islanders pretty easily and they also had sizable advantage in scoring chances and creating shots off passing plays. How they won the territorial battle is a little interesting, though. Throughout the playoffs, we’ve seen most teams create over half of their shots off entries done by carrying the puck in. Tampa Bay created a majority of their shots this way, but less than other teams and a good chunk of their offense came off turnovers. Meanwhile, the Islanders were more reliant on transition play (and having some success off creating turnovers as well) for their offense.
It’s interesting to see it drawn out like this because Tampa Bay seems like a team that would thrive off carry-ins, and the Islanders didn’t exactly do a great job of defending their blue line against Florida. You would expect Tampa Bay to have a field day here, especially with how badly they outshot and outchanced the Islanders. To an extent, this is what happened but Tampa Bay wasn’t as reliant on transition play as other teams and turnovers were a big part of their offense, which says a lot about the Islanders defensive zone play.
To illustrate this further, we’re going to take a look at zone exits for both teams. This is something I’ve been tracking all post-season, but haven’t been able to work into my posts yet for various reasons. Since turnovers were a big factor this series, I figured that this would be a good opportunity to do so. I discussed the methodology behind tracking exits on my glossary page, so go there if you want to know more about what exactly I look for. To put it briefly, I counted the number of times a team attempted to exit the zone, how often they were successful and how often they did it with control of the puck. I also tracked how often they failed to exit the zone and if the zone exit led to a successful zone entry. It’s debatable how much this leads to in terms of winning the shot battle or goal-differential, but it’s hard to say that it didn’t play a big role in this series when you look at how both teams created their shots.
You can see that Tampa had a big edge on the Islanders in this category.
The Islanders had some problems in their own zone, to put it mildly. Not only did Tampa Bay do a better job of exiting their zone, they were able to do it with control more and they were able to turn those exits into successful entries, which is the overall goal. Another thing that stands out is the failed exits category, which is where the Bolts did most of their damage. One-fifth of the Islanders exited attempts resulted in a failed attempt or a turnover and the Lightning capitalized on this. Tampa had some of their own problems in this area, but this issue was more pronounced for the Islanders and ended up burning them a few times.
A look at the Islanders’ individual performances shows who the guilty parties were and how shallow their depth was at this point in the playoffs.
The Islanders had some good showings here from their top players (Tavares & Leddy) in particular, but as you go down the depth chart, the uglier it gets. Their fourth line of Clutterbuck, Cizikas & Martin couldn’t get out of their own zone at all, let alone with possession and their second pairing of Calvin de Haan & Johnny Boychuk had a pretty rough series too. Most of the Islanders forwards had a tough time getting out of their zone cleanly, as only four regular forwards were able to do it at least 50% of the time (Bailey only played two games) and a couple of their better players (Nielsen & Strome) had disastrous showings here. Zidlicky also struggled before he was benched for Ryan Pulock in Game 4, who wasn’t much of an improvement but at least cut down on the turnovers that plagued the Islanders for most of this series.
When the whole team struggles this much, it’s usually one of two things. The first case is that the team is clearly outmatched, which isn’t too out of the question when you compare regular season numbers, and the other is that it’s a system/matchup problem. Both are plausible cases. I don’t think the Islanders are this much worse than the Lightning, but Tampa seemed to be all over them in the offensive zone and cut off most of the passing lanes. All the Islanders could do most of the time was dump the puck out to center or make a “hope” play that had a better chance of being turned over.
If you want to see how hard Tampa made it for the Islanders to get out of their own zone, this example from Game 1 shows it well. The Islanders sent out their top line & defense pairing against Tampa Bay’s for a defensive zone faceoff. Tampa Bay ended up creating eight shot attempts in a minute span and it all started with a couple of small, innocent looking plays that turned into a fire drill for the Islanders.
Things start off well for the Islanders as they win the draw and Travis Hamonic looks to start the breakout. Note how they’re going behind the net (presumably to move the play to Leddy, who is the better puck-mover of the two) and the Lightning have two forecheckers attacking the puck. Some teams sit back and defend after they lose the draw, but Tampa Bay played this pretty aggressively. The fact that they’re trailing by two in the third period probably influenced that a little.
Nikita Kucherov disrupts the Islanders breakout by intercepting the Islanders d-to-d exchange behind the net. The Islanders don’t lose possession on this play, but Kucherov threw off their rhythm just a little and this influences the rest of the play, as you’re about to see. Also take note of Tyler Johnson covering the other lane, so Hamonic didn’t have much room to work with at all.
The Islanders try to work the play around the boards with Kucherov hounding Leddy as much as he possibly can. Leddy’s attempting to skate the puck out of harm’s way and possibly look for an outlet in Alan Quine (#10), but the Lightning are converging on him quickly. Kucherov’s already on his tail and the other forward, Ondrej Palat, is closing in on his other passing lane.
Leddy can’t make a play in time and eventually loses possession with two Lightning players converging on him. Tampa can now get to work on a cycle with the Islanders trying to get back into position.
Palat takes the puck off the wall and cuts to the center of the ice. The Islanders react to the play well, as Palat’s only options are to shoot it from where he is or move the puck back to Victor Hedman at the point. Also take note of how all five Islanders are in the picture and only three Lightning players, which means one thing….
Palat hangs onto the puck for a couple of seconds and finds Matt Carle, who came off the bench, and had an open lane on the farside of the ice. Now, Palat had to wait a couple of seconds to make this play so the Islanders had time to react to it and Hamonic was able to prevent Carle from having a clear shot at the net.
Hamonic does a nice job of recovering and is able to break up the play. Unfortunately, the second he gets possession, two Lightning players are right in his face and he can’t make a quick outlet to Kyle Okposo, who would have had a free pass out of the zone if he made the pass.
Okposo goes to the boards to make the play easier for Hamonic, but Palat is there to cut off the pass yet again and we’re right back where we started.
The Lightning spend the next twenty seconds or so working a cycle, trying to drive the Islanders out of position and Kucherov is eventually able to find Matt Carle open in the slot. He gets a decent chance away on his backhand with Johnson screening Greiss. The Islanders are exhausted and scrambling at this point.
Greiss makes the save but he is tested again with Kucherov sitting right at the side of the net. Hamonic is also there and disrupts Kucherov’s path to the net enough to prevent the shot from getting on goal.
The rebound deflects to Alan Quine in the slot and he attempts to clear the puck out of the zone so the Islanders can at least get a change or a breather.
Instead, the puck goes right to Victor Hedman and the Lightning get yet another shot on goal, this time with Leddy screening his own goaltender.
The Lightning work yet another cycle with the Islanders exhausted from chasing them around the rink for the past 50 seconds and they are able to setup another shot with a screen in front. This process continued for another 30 seconds and the Lighting were able to get a few more shots out of it. Even though they didn’t score, the Islanders eventually got worn down from playing so much in their own zone and it played a factor as the series went on. In fact, you would see this process repeat itself many times over the next four games.
The Islanders kept trying to use the boards to exit the zone when they were under pressure and it didn’t take long for the Lightning to figure this out and use it to their advantage. All of the Islanders defensemen were guilty of this (we just saw their top pair get worked in the last breakdown), but Calvin de Haan in particular had trouble with this if you refer back to the numbers. He had the second highest Failed Exit Percentage on the team and wasn’t very successful at getting the puck out of his zone with control. Here’s an example of some of the problems he had.
The play starts off pretty well for the Islanders, as de Haan forces a dump-in by Kucherov, one of Tampa Bay’s more dangerous players in the neutral zone. Kucherov is a little more strategic with this dump-in, as it looks like’s directing the puck to an area where one of his teammate’s can get to it. An indirect pass if you
After a short puck battle, the play eventually goes along the boards and the Islanders look to start a breakout. As you can probably guess, things don’t go as planned.
The Islanders try to exit up the wall again and the play is broken off by Namestnikov and Jason Garrison, who pinched down the right wall. There’s no one there to make a recovery for the Islanders and things start to unravel shortly after.
Kucherov covers up for Garrison’s spot at the point and Jonathan Marchessault reads the play well by getting himself into a shooting position. With the Islanders having just turned the puck over, no one is in position and Marchessault is left wide open for the time being.
Fortunately for the Islanders, Marchessault wiffs on the shot and they dodge a bullet for now. The play isn’t over quite yet, though.
After that near-disaster the Islanders try to start another breakout and de Haan is kind of nailed into a corner with two Tampa Bay players surrounding him. He tries to go around the net to his partner, Thomas Hickey, who is on the other side. There is some open space here so the play is possible if they move the puck around quick enough.
Hickey goes for a short breakout pass to Shane Prince and the Isles try a similar breakout. Tampa, again, reads the play well and has a forward coming down ready to cut off Prince’s lane and force the Islanders to start over again.
Prince tries to avoid this by switching gears by reversing course and moving the play around to de Haan on the other side. Kucherov closed the lane on him quickly and there’s some open space on the other side, so this looks like a smart play on his part.
Kucherov quickly reads this and converges on de Haan the second he receives the puck. Prince had to take a longer round behind the net to get de Haan the puck, so this probably allowed Kucherov some extra time to get to the other side of the ice and make things tougher fort the Islander defenseman.
It doesn’t take long for things to fall apart for the Islanders, as Kucherov is all over de Haan and he makes a hasty play to move the puck up the boards.
Shortly after the turnover, Namestnikov retrieves the puck and quickly moves it to the front of the net. You can see the Islander forward in the neutral zone who de Haan was trying to get the puck to before Kucherov got in his face.
With the Islanders, again, caught out of position after a turnover, the Lightning had an outnumbered situation in front of the net and Marchessault gets a good scoring chance away plus a rebound opportunity. There’s a lot of examples I can go over with this because it happened so often, but I think I’ve beaten the point into the ground by now. I looked to see if the Islanders adjusted at all, but they reverted to the same tactics whenever they were under pressure throughout the series. Moving it up the boards wasn’t their first option, but the Lightning kept attacking them in waves in the offensive zone that they didn’t have much of an option.
Something I did notice when reviewing the games in Brooklyn, however, was that the Islanders strategy when defending zone exits was the exact opposite. Their defensemen weren’t nearly as aggressive at disrupting breakouts and when they were, it didn’t have much of an impact because their strategy was so passive that Tampa could find a lane out of the zone pretty easily.
Here we see the Lightning in a situation that they forced the Islanders into many times in the first two games. Their breakout is moved to the wall and de Haan does a nice job of disrupting Andrej Sustr’s attempt to exit the zone. Sustr has some support with two forwards nearby and the Islanders have Kyle Okposo there to help block the Lightning’s path.
A puck battle ensues and the Lightning have a favorable situation as they outnumber the Isles three-to-one and Okposo has backed off into the neutral zone. Pretty much conceding possession of the puck and any chance the Islanders have of creating a scoring chance, as the Lightning have the advantage and the Isles are already preparing to defend.
The Lightning win the battle and Drouin has an easy path out of the zone with support coming in another forward. You can see Okposo back in the neutral zone already in defense mode. I was curious if this was a singular instance or a trend and I notice the Islanders defense do this quite a few times in the series.
Here we see Ryan Callahan with the puck shortly after blocking a shot. The defenseman who took the shot, Ryan Pulock, immediately backed off into the neutral zone after Callahan blocked it and the far-side defenseman does the same. The Lightning made a breakout pass shortly after this and got a successful zone entry out of it. It’s interesting to see how different the two team’s strategies were when it came to breakouts and defending them, especially since it caused so many problems for the Islanders and they kept sticking with it.
Were zone entries any different?
5v5 Zone Entries
The neutral zone play is interesting because it’s basically a draw. Tampa Bay had a slight edge in entries but had to dump the puck in more often than the Islanders. They were also creating fewer shots per carry-in than the Islanders and made up for it by being more productive on entries where they had to dump the puck in. Both teams ended up creating a similar amount of shots off entries with Tampa Bay having a slight edge here. They also doubled up the Islanders in goals, which is partially due to Bishop playing so well and the Lightning being more effective at moving the puck around to create chances.
The fact that the neutral zone play ended up being so even in terms of shots illustrates how big of a factor turnovers & poor breakouts were for the Islanders, as that seemed to be what was holding them back.
Lightning Zone Entries
If you want to know why Tampa had a lower Carry-in rate than you’d expect, look at Killorn, Callahan & most of their defense and that should explain things. Among regular forwards, Killorn was their most relied on player in the neutral zone and he dumped the puck in on most of his entries. The same can be said for Callahan, as his line with Boyle & Paquette was mostly a dump-and-chase unit that wasn’t called upon to produce much offense off the rush. Their defense wasn’t relied on to be puck-carriers either with the exception of Nikita Nesterov, who spent the last few games on the bench and Slater Koekkoek, who played more of a seventh defensemen. Victor Hedman also belongs in this category, as he had more of a role in the neutral zone than anyone else on the blue line, even though he had to dump the puck in on the majority of his entries.
Aside from that, Tampa did a pretty good job of getting the puck to their more skilled players and they were able to make plays happen at the opposing blue line. Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov are the two obvious standouts here, as they were the catalysts for most of Tampa Bay’s offense in the neutral zone. Drouin in particular had an outstanding showing here and Filppula also did well for himself, balancing out some of Killorn’s play on the second line. All three members of the Triplets line also find themselves in good spots with Kucherov doing most of the heavy lifting and Johnson & Palat not far behind him. Tampa played with 11 forwards for most of the series, so their numbers are top-heavy but the top of their roster performed very well and earned any extra ice time they were given.
Islanders 5v5 Zone Entries
You might recall that the Islanders had to dump the puck in a lot in their first round series against Florida. This is one thing they improved on, as guys like Brock Nelson and Frans Nielsen did a much better job of finding space in the neutral zone and carrying the puck in. Both of them had to do most of the work on their lines too, as most of the Islanders wingers had rough outings. Two exceptions were Kyle Okposo, who was attached at the hip to Tavares, and Cal Clutterbuck, who was glued to the fourth line so neither provided much help for the aforementioned centers.
Someone who helped a little was Shane Prince, who continued his strong play from the first round and eventually earned himself a spot on Tavares’ line in Game 4. Prince seemed to give whatever line he was on a spark and he ended up getting moved around a lot over the series, which isn’t too surprising given how much Kulemin, Strome and Bernier struggled.
On defense, Nick Leddy is the standout once again, providing an extra dimension to the Islanders defense corps. I thought the Lightning contained him well and didn’t let him take over the series as much as he did against Florida, but he clearly had his moments. The pairing of Leddy and Hamonic were really all the Islanders defense had in terms of moving the puck & joining the play. At least until Ryan Pulock returned from injury in the last couple of games. Aside from that, the Isles defense played a pretty safe game.
Lightning 5v5 Shots & Passes
Tampa Bay has a crowded graph with no real “passengers” to speak of, as most of their roster did their part to contribute to the offense in one way or another. That said, they aren’t short of dual-threats or standouts. Both Kucherov and Palat are in the dual-threat category, doing a fantastic job of creating shots in any way, shape or form. Their versatility is what helps make the Triplets line so dangerous and it was a little surprising to see John Cooper flip Palat with Killorn for a couple of games. Adding Palat to the second line gives FIlppula & Drouin a shooter to work with, but you can tell here that Killorn brought down the line’s effectiveness just a little. Almost everyone on the team looks “weak” in comparison to how well Palat & Kucherov played, though.
The same can be said for Victor Hedman and the rest of Tampa Bay’s defense, as the towering defensemen might have been Tampa Bay’s most important player all series. Hedman was very solid at breaking up plays in the defensive zone and when you combine that with his offensive contributions, it’s hard to not to ask for more out of him. He was Tampa Bay’s main source of offense from the blue line, as no one else on their defense corps came close to matching him. Matt Carle had a solid series as a play-maker while Koekkoek, Garrison & Nesterov were active as shooters, but Hedman was clearly on another level compared to them.
Islanders 5v5 Shots & Passes
The spread here is pretty interesting to say the very least. The Islanders fourth line actually did a pretty good job of contributing to the offense with Cal Clutterbuck being very active as a shooter and Casey Cizikas doing some work as a play-maker. Regardless, when you’re fourth line is your most effective unit at creating offense, something is clearly wrong. That’s the case here with the Islanders. As good as Tavares was as a play-maker, the first line ended up not doing much. Okposo had an underwhelming series at even strength and Alan Quine, who spent most of this series with Tavares, was very ineffective. Nielsen also struggled to find chemistry with any linemate in particular and Strome did most of his work as a passer.
The Islanders top lines lacked a shooter and part of that was due to Tampa Bay taking away most of their options in the offensive zone, especially against the top line. Most of the time they had to work the play back to the point or take a low-percentage shot with no movement, which is why you have Johnny Boychuk in the spot he is on this graph. Okposo in particular struggled to get open and he ended up being pretty quiet all series. Shane Prince and Brock Nelson also probably could have done more with the ice time they were given and how solid they were in the neutral zone.
The Final Word
This series ended up being pretty interesting despite it being only five games long. Tampa Bay won the possession battle rather easily despite not having their best performance in the neutral zone. They made up for it in other areas by targeting certain weak points in the Islanders game and blowing up their zone exit scheme. The Islanders never adjusted and the series ended up being decided very quickly. With how big neutral zone play has been all post-season, it was interesting to see Tampa find other ways to win like they did here.
If you haven’t heard the news, I’m going to be tracking these kinds of stats for the entire league next season and sharing them on this blog! If you want to help me make this happen, please consider becoming a patron on my Patreon page or donate to my GoFundMe page to help me get this project off the ground. It’s a pretty ambitious project on my part and I could really use the help to get it started, to your contributions would mean a lot to me right now.