The intensity and bad blood is rising in the Islanders-Lightning series as the teams meet for Game 4.
Finally, the bad blood is flowing.
After playing a pair of relatively sedate games in Florida, the Lightning and Islanders dialed up the intensity with a couple of nasty hits during Game 3 in Brooklyn. And with the Isles still steaming about the play that led to their 5–4 OT loss, the animosity is likely to carry over into Game 4 (7:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).
Here's what to look for tonight:
• The stakes are high for both teams. Expect emotions to match.
The Isles were angry after Tampa Bay’s Brian Boyle flattened Thomas Hickey with what appeared to be an elbow to the head in OT then, moments later, scored the decisive goal as the defenseman struggled to regain his footing.
"[The referee is] standing right there. I've watched it numerous times now," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "Those are the types of hits we're trying to eliminate from our game. It's just too bad it had to end that way."
It may have been a head shot. Or maybe not. The video was inconclusive, which is probably why the league passed on the opportunity to assess supplemental discipline on Boyle.
The Bolts weren't thrilled themselves when Hickey wrecked Jonathan Drouin earlier in the game.
That hit left the young star flat on his back in the corner, and forced him to leave the game for a concussion testing. And it might have encouraged Boyle's response when he had a chance to take his shot on Hickey.
While those two moments made the highlight reels, there was a general escalation of the physical play. These two squads are starting to dislike each other, and it's showing in the players' drive to finish hits and their after-the-whistle pushing and shoving.
Maintaining that level of engagement, with discipline, will be key for both sides.
• The Isles could make a couple of significant roster changes for this one. Defenseman Ryan Pulock, out since Game 4 of the Florida series, is a game-time decision. He brings a heavy shot from the point and a deft mobility that makes the Isles more effective at both ends of the ice. If nothing else, he'd provide a huge boost for a power play that could use the extra push. Ryan Strome could also make his return to the lineup after sitting out Game 3, likely replacing rookie Alan Quine. Strome's been asked to be more engaged physically. We'll see if that one-game timeout taught him a lesson.
• There's a lot to be said for resilience this time of year. That the Lightning were able to bounce back from three one-goal deficits in Game 3, and get a final-minute goal before winning in overtime exemplifies their experience and character.
But there's a lot more to be said for not digging yourself too many holes. And that has to be Tampa Bay's priority in Game 4.
The Bolts almost gave it away in the early going of Game 3, getting outshot 17-9 in the first period. Full marks to the Isles for charging out of the gate, but Tampa Bay made it too easy on them. The Lightning were slow to pucks, soft on coverage and allowed too many easy zone entries. If not for a brilliant individual performance from goaltender Ben Bishop, they're down by three or four to end the period and spending the next 40 minutes just waiting for the clock to run down.
Tampa Bay clearly misses Anton Stralman, who likely is out for the series with a leg fracture. He brings a steadiness that can mask the occasional breakdown. But that's not an excuse. This group held the Isles to just 42 shots total in Games 1 and 2, with just eight of them coming over the final two periods of Game 2. The key: relentless pursuit and more effective execution with the puck.
They'll be much more stingy in this one.
FANSIDED: Isles' Tavares carrying unfair burden
• Given the option of last change in Tampa, Lightning coach Jon Cooper sent Victor Hedman over the boards every time John Tavares took the ice for the Isles. The results were mixed. Tavares picked up a goal and an assist in Game 1. Hedman neutralized him in Game 2.
When last change went to the Isles as the series shifted to Brooklyn, Capuano did his best to keep Tavares away from the giant defender. By the end of the game, he'd spent just 5:54 of his total 18:23 matched up against Hedman.
That should have freed him up to lead the way. Instead, it had the opposite effect. While Tavares was being shut down by Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison, Hedman was arguably Tampa's best skater. He still played 30-plus minutes and went on to lead Tampa Bay's comeback with a goal and two assists.
There are no easy matchups this time of year. A player like Tavares will always have to fight through blanket coverage to make an impact. But that coverage goes both ways. It might be in New York's best interest then to go power on power in Game 4.