TAMPA, Fla. — The Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champions. But even as they cited their own mental errors and mistakes as a significant factor in Sunday’s result, it was clear the Islanders were the better team.
They controlled five-on-five play and Semyon Varlamov outdueled Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy as the Islanders won a physical Game 1 of the NHL semifinal series — a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals won by the Lightning in six games — 2-1 at Amalie Arena before a mostly subdued crowd of 14,513.
"If you look at the way the playoffs are going for us, our games just continue to get better as it’s gone along, and that’s what you want out of your group," Jordan Eberle said. "You’re in the final four, you should have confidence. This is a good start for us but we know they’re going to come out pushing next game and it just gets harder and harder."
Game 2 is Tuesday night before the series returns to Nassau Coliseum for Game 3 on Thursday night.
Varlamov made 30 saves but was denied his fifth career playoff shutout on Brayden Point’s power-play goal with 53.7 seconds left in regulation as the Lightning skated six-on-four with Vasilevskiy (29 saves) off for an extra skater.
Still, the Islanders held the Lightning’s potent top trio of Point between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov to three shots.
"We had a good start today," Varlamov said. "We played well the entire game. We played hard, physical. We were focusing on our game today and that’s why we had success. We didn’t give up stupid penalties."
The Lightning went 1-for-2 on the power play.
"Our work ethic was there," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, whose team had been idle since eliminating the Hurricanes on Tuesday. "Our compete was there. Our minds weren’t there. Some of our decisions were off."
The Islanders wrapped up their six-game win over the Bruins on Wednesday.
"Just the intensity from everybody tonight," Mathew Barzal said. "Our defense, they closed the door on a lot of plays, a lot of rushes. I really liked how we all played tonight."
Defenseman Ryan Pulock gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead at 5:36 of the third period with a hard shot from the right point that may have been Vasilevskiy’s only mistake of the game as he had a good look.
The Islanders started creating chances by forcing turnovers in the second period. Josh Bailey stole the puck and took it to the crease before lifting a backhander off the crossbar at 2:31. Anthony Beauvillier took the puck from Point and Vasilevskiy stopped his backhander at 5:56.
Finally, Bailey sprung Barzal off Steven Stamkos’ misplay in the neutral zone and Barzal got to the crease and beat Vasilevskiy through his pads to give the Isles a 1-0 lead at 12:32.
The game was the first for either team this season played outside of their own division.
"Both teams are pretty well the same as they were last year," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. "Systematically we’re pretty similar. There hasn’t been any overhaul on both sides. Pretty well what we expected and, in some ways, that was good. It was a good start for us.
"I actually thought there would be a feeling-out process for at least a period, maybe half a game," Trotz added. "But it didn’t seem that way. It seemed like both teams were familiar and both teams went at it."
Both goalies showed early that goals likely will be at a premium in this series.
Vasilevskiy stopped Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the left post and Kyle Palmieri off the right post at 9:21 of the first period as part of his 14 saves in the period. Varlamov stopped 11 first-period shots, including sticking inside Alex Killorn’s slap shot from the slot at 16:44.
The teams set a chippy tone that is likely to intensify in the series. Matt Martin caught defenseman David Savard with a heavy check eight seconds into the game and Cal Clutterbuck got involved with defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. Killorn then leveled Barzal in the neutral zone at 8:05 of the first period.