The worst thing right now for Tampa Bay would be to let up. Luckily, the Lightning’s best players have formed like Voltron to steer this series back in their direction. And with a 3-1 lead on the Islanders, the trio of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have a chance to bury a very sturdy New York outfit on Tuesday.
While the Islanders found life in Game 3, Tampa Bay snuffed it out in Game 4, which turned out to be a 4-1 Bolts victory secured on the backs of their top line. Point of course missed Game 3 due to injury, while another top-six forward, Alex Killorn, was serving a one-game suspension for boarding on Brock Nelson.
With the Lightning back at full strength in Game 4, they were able to puncture that vaunted Islanders defense, even if it took awhile. The important takeaway was how the top line performed. Even when facing top New York competition, the Palat-Point-Kucherov combo had the best possession numbers of any Tampa Bay players, while also registering the game-winning goal and the insurance marker.
What’s more, we’ve started to see a very feisty Kucherov in this series, which brings an intriguing dimension to the incredibly talented winger. Kucherov started a line skirmish at the end of Game 3 with his unnecessary hacks on Jean-Gabriel Pageau when the Isles center was skating in for a gimme empty-net goal and though it was childish of Kucherov, there’s also an argument to be made that he is clearly invested in this run and will not take losing lightly.
As for Palat, he gets the least publicity of the three, but his contributions are obvious to coach Jon Cooper, who has coached the Czech left winger since Palat turned pro with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals in 2011.
“That third goal was everything Ondrej Palat is,” Cooper said. “He stayed above pucks where a lot of guys might have skated away. He does all those things that are unnoticed but lines don’t survive without them. I’ve watched it every year. He doesn’t get the attention of some of the other guys, but you need a Palat on your line and I’m sure guys like ‘Kuch’ and Point will be the first ones to tell you and that’s the ultimate compliment.”
Point, who has already established himself as a serious Conn Smythe candidate for playoff MVP, didn’t play as much as he normally would have (though he was still north of 18 minutes on the afternoon) and Cooper said the Lightning were managing him – which makes sense, given that Point is clearly on the mend from something.
“It’s the playoffs,” Cooper said. “These guys are playing hard, hard minutes and when you watch the intensity of these games, it just keeps increasing.”
If the Bolts are going to finish off the Islanders, they will need Point and his linemates to once again be offensive dynamos. And the diminutive center is the one running the show right now.
“I would go as far as to say he’s the most dangerous guy in the playoffs this year,” said Tampa teammate Blake Coleman. “He’s a special talent, he tilts the ice every time he’s out there and anytime you have a guy like that in your lineup, you have a better chance of winning hockey games.”
Now it’s time for the Lightning to step up on New York’s neck. The Islanders will continue to be a tough out, even though grinding center Casey Cizikas has left the bubble due to an injury. Palat believes the path is to continue playing hard, 200-foot hockey and he’s bang-on with that assessment.
“We played a great game but we need to turn the page and get ready for the next game,” he said. “We need to stay focused and do what makes us successful.”
If they do that, they’ll be playing for the franchise’s second Stanley Cup title very soon.