The NHL does not award extra points for artistic impression, so the New York Islanders need not worry about that. In fact, the most creative they got in their 2-1 double overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final came in the celebration on Jordan Eberle’s winning goal when goalie Semyon Varlamov slid along the ice and into the mass of humanity in white sweaters.
This is not an indictment of the Islanders. Barry Trotz is a brilliant coach and as good a person as you’ll meet in the game. GM Lou Lamoriello is a proven winner and one of the greatest team builders the NHL has ever seen. The Islanders work extremely hard and respond to adversity in a very admirable way. They are here because they deserve to be here. They’ve beaten more talented teams to get to this point and if they manage to somehow come back and win this series, they will have won two straight series after trailing 3-1.
But if you’re not part of their fan base, man, this is a tough team to watch sometimes. And when they suck their opponents into playing their game, the way they did the Lightning in Game 5, the result is a game that is not terribly compelling. In Game 5, there were a total of 62 blocked shots between both teams, which was one more than the number of shots that actually hit the nets. Sixty-one shots in a double-overtime game sounds about right, if you’re talking about one team, not both. There were a total of 145 hits in the game – sure, these teams don’t like each other, but that’s gilding the lily a little, no? When the number of blocked shots and hits are that high, you can almost always come to the conclusion that the game was not exactly an oil painting from an entertainment perspective.
The Ottawa Senators came within a double-overtime goal of making it to the Stanley Cup final by playing pretty much the same way three years ago. Like the Islanders against the Lightning, the Senators were overmatched against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like the Islanders, the Senators were blown out in one of the games in the Eastern Conference final. But in the games they won, they did so by slowing the game to a crawl. It is not pretty hockey, but it can be effective.
“Our guys didn’t waver,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “They just kept grinding. We kept grinding and grinding and you can get some energy from it, there’s no question. We didn’t give up and that’s a great sign for going forward and it gives us some energy for next game.”
It’s debatable whether the Islanders dictated the pace throughout most of the game or were just simply trying to keep up to a team that was dominating them. But for Game 5 it worked. It might not be sustainable, but if Brayden Point is out of the Tampa Bay lineup for any extended period of time and Tampa’s secondary scorers continue to play the way the have, hey, you never know. And with one assist on 10 shot attempts, Mathew Barzal of the Islanders looked as dangerous as he has in this summer’s playoffs. There is no onerous travel in this series, there are no distractions and aside from the actual games, this is not presenting a big physical challenge. That definitely favors a team that grinds the way the Islanders do. And as aesthetically unpleasing as it looks, if the Islanders have any designs on winning this series, that is what they are going to have to continue to do.
“We have an understanding of what is going to allow us to win hockey games,” Trotz said. “You don’t want to get into a track meet with Tampa up and down the ice. They have some high-level guys who can execute, so you’ve have to make it real difficult. I thought we did a better job of that (in Game 5) and it paid off.”
Indeed it did. Whether it can for two more games is highly debatable, but if it does, buckle up for a Stanley Cup final between the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars. And won’t that be a feast for the eyes?