TAMPA, Fla. — The Lightning’s offensive talent is lethal and indisputable. But earlier this season, the Islanders decisively beat them twice.
They saw on Saturday night just how much the Lightning have improved defensively.
“I think it was evident tonight,” Anders Lee said. “They played a pretty clean game. I think both teams did. A team of that caliber, when they do stuff like that, it really shows.”
The Islanders opened a challenging two-game trip and a longer stretch of six of seven on the road with a 3-1 loss to the streaking Lightning at Amalie Arena, snapping a 3-0-2 run.
The loss prevented the Islanders (31-16-6), who will face the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals on Monday night, from leapfrogging the Blue Jackets into third place after the Avalanche won, 2-1, at Columbus. The Flyers moved within one point of the Islanders for the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot with a 7-2 win over the Capitals.
The Lightning (35-15-5), who tied an NHL record last season with 62 wins before being swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round, have won six in a row. But they didn’t clinch it until Steven Stamkos scored an empty-net goal with 1:02 left.
“They are a legit Stanley Cup threat all the time,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought they played well defensively. They were on top of us and their back pressure was noticeable tonight.”
The Islanders applied steady pressure during the final 10 minutes but managed only five shots on goal in the period. Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy made 17 saves and is unbeaten in regulation in his last 18 starts.
The Lightning also blocked 17 shots.
Semyon Varlamov made 27 saves for the Islanders. Trotz pulled him for an extra skater with 2:07 left.
“We can get a little bit more out of a couple guys,” Trotz said. “These are games where you need your top guys to come through for you.”
The Islanders converted on their lone power play as Josh Bailey, skating in from the right corner, found Derick Brassard at the crease for the redirection to cut the Lightning’s lead to 2-1 at 12:12 of the third period.
“We’re down 2-0 and we’re just trying to get our team going,” said Brassard, who has two goals in three games after an 18-game goal-less drought. “It’s just too bad we couldn’t score when we pulled the goalie. I think our effort was good. It was just a matter of inches.”
The Islanders won the first two games against the Lightning this season by an aggregate score of 10-3, scoring three goals in the third period each time. But the Lightning now are 21-4-2 since a 5-1 loss to the Islanders at Amalie Arena on Dec. 9.
The Lightning took a 1-0 lead 14 seconds into the second period after Nikita Kucherov sprung Brayden Point between defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews for a breakaway.
That became 2-0 at 6:25 of the third period as former Islander farmhand Carter Verhaeghe skated easily from the left corner to the crease to lift a backhander over Varlamov’s glove. Jordan Eberle did try to slow Verhaeghe after switching defensive assignments with Pulock.
“The second one, that bothers me,” Trotz said. “That was a lack of execution. Two of our forwards didn’t pick up their forwards and they drifted in the defensive zone.”
Mathew Barzal had a goal overturned by a successful offside challenge with 42.4 seconds left in the first period and had a potential breakaway opportunity broken up by Anthony Cirelli at 15:01 of the second period.