TAMPA, Fla. — A few notes after the Islanders took Game 1 from the Lightning on Wednesday night.
— The Islanders’ fourth line looked a lot more like the trio that had a fantastic regular season than the one that was too much of a liability in the Florida series.
Casey Cizikas was a wrecking ball, even though his forceful (and clean) collision with Erik Condra left the Tampa forward with a fairly obvious concussion in the first period. That was a strength-vs.-strength play and Cizikas didn’t shy away.
That line created a lot in the offensive zone and generally justified its presence in all situations. Sometimes Jack Capuano leans on Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck when the line isn’t going well, but as the coach said postgame, he could tell early in Game 1 that the line would be getting crucial minutes.
— The Lightning’s speed caused some issues in the opening minutes and obviously throughout the third, but the last half of the first period and most of the second showed how the Isles can slow down the likes of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin: Make them defend.
The Lightning made a handful of bad defensive reads, especially on Shane Prince’s goals. When the Isles started clogging lanes in the neutral zone and on the forecheck in the second period, Tampa didn’t have many options.
— The modern NHL observer derides (rightly so, on occasion) the dump-and-chase style the Isles utilize at times, but in a series where the Islanders have the physical edge, it can work. Especially with a lead.
You could see it when each of the fourth-line forwards took every opportunity to hit Victor Hedman, Tampa’s indispensable defenseman. They’re setting a tone and trying to wear down one of the opposition’s best; Clutterbuck told me after the Panthers series he sensed a few of Florida’s defensemen were tired of the constant pounding as that series wore on.
— Sure, Thomas Greiss was insane again in Game 1, with 33 saves. The blocker stop on Nikita Nesterov to keep it 4-2 in the third was his best; he’s a big guy who plays on his knees, so that flailing stop is a difficult one for a goaltender who relies more on positioning than reflex.
But witness the postgame scene in the visitors room: Greiss gabbing away with Johnny Boychuk, who was sharing his story of being pitchforked in a very uncomfortable spot during the third. Greiss making funny faces behind reporters to get Shane Prince to crack as he gave an interview.
Greiss is so unlike any other goaltender it’s pleasantly shocking. Perhaps his status as an unsung guy, a 30-year-old getting his first taste of the big time, is a plus. He’s mature enough to handle the pressure and knows himself well so there’s no tension in his game or his attitude.
Jaroslav Halak is back with the Isles and practicing, but it would take two or possibly even three bad games from Greiss to prompt a goaltending switch. Greiss has been the most important Islander this postseason outside of John Tavares. There’s no going back now.
— Jack Capuano didn’t appear to need stitches from the puck that caught him flush in the side of his nose Wednesday night, but the medical staff seemed worried about a concussion, which is why he didn’t return to the bench for nearly eight minutes of game action.
That’s the second time in Capuano’s Isles tenure he’s been felled by an errant puck, having missed the third period and overtime in a game against the Devils on Feb. 1, 2013. That was near the beginning of the lockout-shortened season in which Capuano missed the opener after needing surgery to remove kidney stones.
Nothing comes easy for this Islanders coach, who now has 10 postseason wins behind the bench. A little ways off from Al Arbour’s 123 postseason wins, but hey, it’s a start.
His quick in-game swap of Brock Nelson and Frans Nielsen on the middle two lines produced immediate results, with Nelson starting both plays that Prince finished and Nielsen forming a better defensive line with Nikolay Kulemin and Steve Bernier.
Capuano’s moves this postseason have paid off, between games and within games.
— Marek Zidlicky struggled with Tampa’s speed perhaps more than any other Islanders defenseman, so perhaps that’s the only spot Capuano will change on Saturday afternoon if Ryan Pulock is ready to return.
The threat of Pulock’s heavy shot at the point could help the first power-play unit, which did produce a goal Wednesday night but was flummoxed by the Lightning’s aggressive penalty kill. Capuano is loath to change things up after a win, but if Pulock is ready he might try it with that sixth defenseman spot.