Lightning surging toward postseason while Islanders desperate for points

League: NHL

Posted on: 29 Mar, 2024 at 11:47 PM

Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

With just 10 games remaining in the regular season and their spot in the playoffs very solid, the Tampa Bay Lightning seem as locked in as they have been all season.

Winners of two straight games and owning an eight-game point streak (7-0-1), Tampa Bay will play the New York Islanders on Saturday night in one of just six home games remaining on its schedule.

In a stout March, the Lightning (40-25-7, 87 points) have gone 8-1-1 and outscored their opponents 43-26.

On the special teams front, coach Jon Cooper's penalty-kill group has performed as the top unit over those 10 contests, denying 31 of 32 power plays (96.9 percent), tops in the NHL.

In Wednesday's 3-1 home victory over the Boston Bruins, who were playing the second game of a grinding back-to-back set, Cooper's club did not play a lot of flashy offense, but its showing in the defensive end was stellar.

"It's definitely up there, especially with the team we were playing," Cooper said when asked if the defensive effort was his club's best through 72 games. "But I'm not going to take anything away from what we did. I thought we played strong from the drop of the puck.

"Boston had a really hard-fought game last night (at Florida), and they found a way to dig in and come back and get that (4-3) win. There's a time when you should catch a team when they're a little tired. I thought if we could be physical right off the bat and have those guys sit there and think, ‘OK, we're going to be in another one tonight,' we could maybe take advantage."

In South Florida on Thursday night against the Florida Panthers, the Islanders (31-26-15, 77 points) won a game of real importance in their desperate pursuit of the second wild-card spot behind Tampa Bay.

Down 2-1 in the second period against the reigning Eastern Conference champions, the Islanders got even-strength tallies from Mathew Barzal and Jean-Gabriel Pageau in a stretch of 1:59 for a 3-2 lead as they outshot Florida 13-5 in the frame.

In a frantic final minute, goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who made 26 saves, kept the Panthers from tying it, denying a number of point-blank shots that would have forced overtime.

With the two hard-earned points, New York sits four (two spots) below the playoff cut line, trailing the placeholder Washington Capitals, who have 81 points with 10 games left in the No. 2 position.

Perhaps no Islanders' effort epitomized the gritty performance more than forward Cal Clutterbuck, who was bloodied and battered after a double-minor high-sticking by Florida's Sam Reinhart with just under six minutes to go.

Clutterbuck ended up with three hits, pushing his career total to 4,000 and becoming the first player to reach that milestone in league history.

"That's a big number," the rugged fourth-line right winger said. "I don't know how many I've got, but I was going for an extra one and I got clocked."

Islanders coach Patrick Roy said a strong start was necessary to defeat the Panthers.

"The key was the start of the game," Roy said. "We knew they were going to come out fast. I thought we played very well at the beginning of the game, and Varly made some great saves for us. It was a team performance."

--Field Level Media