Some hockey teams revel in the role of an underdog and become super-motivated in that perilous situation.
In the Islanders’ case, Jack Capuano‘s skaters have no choice.
As they prepare for Sunday afternoon’s fifth playoff game at Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena, the Brooklynites have only the Lightning to blame for their precarious position.
The Floridians thrust Cappy’s Crew in that dubious underdog role on Friday night on Flatbush Avenue with a 2-1 overtime heartbreaker — again! — before a dismayed capacity crowd at Barclays Center.
On the ropes in this Second Round series, the Isles must speedily discover ways and means to combat the Bolts’ combo of speed, savvy, scoring and, most of all, luck or better officiating eyesight.
In Game 4, two potential turning-point breaks went against the home club. Late in the third period with the score knotted, Isles’ goal-scorer Kyle Okposo was high-sticked by the Bolts’ Jason Garrison and no refs call was made.
“The referees said ‘They didn’t see it,'” says an incredulous Capuano who was visibly irritated at the time. “There’s nothing you can do about it but it’s unfortunate that they did not see it.”
Ice-level onlookers at the glass argue that both officials were looking directly at the play.
“It (the high stick) was obvious,” insists Okposo, “but the refs missed it.”
An even worse break occurred on Garrison’s winning goal. The Bolts controlled the puck in the Isles’ zone; Calvin de Haan broke his stick and Okposo gave the defenseman his stick. It left the New Yorkers vulnerable.
Within seconds, the puck was behind Thomas Greiss.
“I didn’t see the puck very well,” the goalie allows. “On Sunday, we have to build on our game and come back. We have to work for our bounces.”
Once again, the protecting-the-lead bugaboo bamboozled the Isles, who outshot Tampa 16-6 in the first period and only had one goal to show for it.
Worse still, a four-minute power play totally fizzled like a water-soaked pop gun.
“For one thing,” Cappy explains, “we couldn’t enter the zone and overhanded the puck.”
A look with 20-20 hindsight reveals that just one goal during that four-minute man-advantage could have been the difference between losing and winning.
As the coach knows only too well, one goal against the 2015 Cup Finalist is not likely to hold up over three periods. This was underlined by the fact that once again John Tavares couldn’t score.
The Tavares-Okposo line had Shane Prince on the wing on this night. Might Cappy be better off in Game 5 by re-inserting the more-productive Frans Nielsen on the line?
“This has crossed my mind,” Capuano replied. “On the other hand, we played a solid last six periods. The Frans line did well against the Nikita Kucherov (Triplets) Line.”
Yet it was Kucherov who tied the game at even strength at 7:49 of the third frame.
Though downhearted, the Isles still believe they can mount a series counterattack on Sunday afternoon in Florida.
“We have to get more pucks deep,” adds Cappy, “eliminate turnovers and make them play a 200-foot game.”
Big Ben Bishop has been a frustrating force for the Bolts. Tavares clanged one off the post on a rebound off of Prince’s shot in the first period.
Leading 1-0 in the middle period, the Isles had a glorious chance when Okposo and Tavares combined on a two-on one. But Kyle’s shot was blunted by Bishop.
“We have to get bodies in front of Bishop,” explains Ryan Strome. “There’s no doubt in my mind we will play our best game of the year in Tampa Bay. This team is resilient with a lot of character.”
A pattern has developed that must be reversed if the Isles are to survive for a Game 6 in Brooklyn. Their offense, powerful in the first period, dwindles as the game progresses and they become too defensive.
Islanders shots on goal by period were 16, 6, 6 and 0 in overtime.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper is not counting the series as won and done for his club.
“The Islanders are physical and hard to play against,” Cooper concludes. “But we have kept their prominent players off the scoreboard.”
Here’s a 10-point plan to reverse the Islanders’ failing fortunes on Sunday:
1. Keep generating rebounds off every shot.
2. Don’t allow the Bolts to gain speed through the neutral zone.
3. Allow Greiss to see every shot.
4. Win face-off battles at all costs.
5. Capitalize on scoring chances.
6. Keep pressure on the Tampa defense and Bishop.
7. Pressure Jonathan Drouin and get physical with him.
8. Put a defensive forward-checker on Kucherov.
9. Make simple rather than cute plays.
10. Be more aggressive on the power play. Exhibit A was the failed four-minute advantage in the first period.
Otherwise dreams of advancing to the third round — so bright after Game 1 — will have to be stored in the freezer for another year.
Then again, they didn’t invent the word COMEBACK for nothing.