By Jeff Capellini
The Islanders had a built-in excuse heading into Game 1 of their second-round series.
They had no intention of ever using it.
Playing on just two days' rest, the Isles were the more motivated team during the first two periods of Wednesday night's 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. This despite the hosts having almost a week to get their wits about them after vanquishing the Detroit Red Wings in the first round.
The third period? Yeah, well, that short rest thing finally took its toll, but the Islanders still found a way to largely shut down the crowd inside Amalie Arena and ultimately seize home-ice advantage.
"It was a quick turnaround, but I think Cappy (head coach Jack Capuano) said we play well when we play a lot of hockey," said the Isles' Shane Prince, who scored twice in the opening 20 minutes. "I guess that's true because that's a big win for us."
One reason why the tired Islanders persevered in Game 1 was the play of a makeshift line thrown together by Capuano, who continues to have the Midas touch this postseason.
Capuano took a bit of a risk putting maligned Ryan Strome, inexperienced Prince and hit-or-miss Brock Nelson together, because Strome was scratched for the final two games of the first-round matchup against the Florida Panthers, while Nelson has not scored since the opener of that series. But none of that seemed to matter Wednesday night. They displayed stunning chemistry and may end up being a real problem for the Lightning as this series continues.
Strome and Nelson assisted on each of Prince's first-period goals, prompting Capuano to focus on the positives and downplay some defensive deficiencies that need cleaning up.
"Those guys have some really good offensive instincts, there's no question, but at the same time it's how you play away from the puck. ... I thought overall, Ryan, the whole line, from our goaltender out, it was a strong game," Capuano said.
Islanders captain John Tavares, who scored what proved to be the winning goal, said the Strome-Prince-Nelson line has a chance to be a real X-factor going forward.
"Those guys are really good threats. They are still young guys, and you can really see the play-making ability when they are moving their feet, hitting the holes and being difficult to play against," said Tavares, who has six goals and 11 points this postseason. "Princey has got a great shot, obviously. Strome has got a great hockey sense and can find guys out there. And Brock, when he uses his size and his shot, he's lethal."
Prince has quickly become a very important piece of the offense, and his young legs have been a godsend for a team that has played a ton of postseason minutes in a short period of time. Islanders general manager Garth Snow took a lot of heat for not making an obvious impact move at the trade deadline, but it turns out he did. For whatever reason, Ottawa gave up on the 23-year-old forward and shipped him and a seventh-round pick to the Isles for a third-round pick.
The Senators have to be kicking themselves right about now.
Needing time to acclimate himself to the Isles' fast-paced offensive style, Prince performed modestly during his 20 regular season games with his new team, registering just three goals and five points. However, it's clear the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder now has Capuano's system down because he has provided key secondary scoring for the Isles through seven playoff games.
"He brings a lot of energy," Strome said of Prince. "He gets everyone inspired with his speed and his work ethic. It's good to play with a guy like that and to put a couple in and help the team out was a good feeling."
Capuano said Prince has earned the right to learn on the fly.
"You want to give a guy an opportunity to get in there and play to his strengths, and he's done that," the coach said. "Like I said, the young guys have made some mistakes, but ... with the effort that you have you can live with it. They are learning every day. To me, you have confidence in (Prince), and we've given him an opportunity here and he's taken advantage of it, so full marks to him."
That line's play helped stake the Islanders to a 4-1 lead through 40 minutes, but in the third period New York ran into all kinds of problems, nearly caving under relentless Tampa pressure. Clearly fatigued, the Isles couldn't clear pucks out of their own end and started losing many of the battles they ruled over the first two periods.
When Tampa's Valtteri Filppula cut the deficit to one with 2:32 to play, it seemed like the game was destined for overtime.
However, though the Isles were running out of gas in a hurry, they hunkered down and found a way. Goaltender Thomas Greiss continued his unbelievable postseason with several highlight-reel saves, his defensemen dug deep to clear the crease of rebounds and loose pucks and back-checking forwards basically sold their bodies to science to slow down the Lightning's momentum.
You could hear a collective exhale from up north after Cal Clutterbuck finally hammered home the empty-netter to seal the victory.
Now the Islanders have to re-energize themselves and prepare for Game 2 on Saturday afternoon, an affair that will almost certainly feature the Lightning trying to pick up where they left off in the third period of the opener.
The good news is the Lightning's 200-foot, fast-paced approach seems to jive with how the Islanders want to play. While Florida repeatedly bottled up the neutral zone during the first round, Tampa Bay appears to have no plans to trap its way into odd-man rushes. The Lightning prefer to cover the entire ice surface as quickly as possible. So do the Islanders, who breezed between the blue lines and had little trouble actually setting up in the offensive end during Game 1.
The problem was the Islanders managed just 22 shots on goal, and had it not been for some shoddy goaltending by the Lightning's Ben Bishop, the outcome might have been decidedly different. Though the Isles played a disciplined game of getting pucks deep, they simply have to generate more sustained pressure in front of whoever Tampa Bay head coach John Cooper puts in net the rest of the way.
"We know they are going to respond, so we have to come out Saturday with even a better effort," Tavares said.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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