Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Five things we learned from the Lightning-Islanders series

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Halfway there.

Two rounds complete. Two more to go. The Lightning is halfway to a Stanley Cup after dispatching the Red Wings and Islanders in the opening two rounds of the playoffs.

Both series ended in five games, though they were very different series.

Unlike the first round, when the Lightning for the most part was the much better team, it scuffled a bit in its second-round series against the Islanders. Honestly, it's fortunate to not be playing a Game 6 tonight in Brooklyn.

Still, it also deserves to be where it is now — resting as it awaits the winner of the Capitals-Penguins series.

So, what did we find out about this Lightning team in the second round?

Here are five things we learned about its five-game victory against the Islanders:

1. Nikita Kucherov is a silent assassin

Getty Images

Nikita Kucherov celebrates after beating the Detroit Red Wings in Game 5 to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

He's a ninja. He's a quiet killer. He has hands of silk and nerves of steel.

The 22-year-old Russian entered Monday the leading playoff scorer with nine goals. Four of those goals came in the series against the Islanders, and all four came in the third period. That includes tying goals to set up overtime victories in Games 3 and 4 in Brooklyn.

That's clutch.

Yet, he is a man of few words.

I spoke to him after Game 5, the series-clinching 4-0 victory Sunday that he sealed with his deadly breakaway goal in the third period.

Me: "How did you guys win this series without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman?''

Kucherov: "We executed.''

Me: "Can you tell me what happened on your goal?''

Kucherov: "I went five-hole.''

Me: "Thanks.''

Kucherov: "Welcome.''

He wasn't being rude. That's just how he is. When asked by another reporter why he wasn't smiling after the Game 5 victory, he explained that the Lightning still had a long way to go to win the Stanley Cup.

Even then, you wonder if he will smile. Cold sharpshooters rarely do.

2. The Lightning did something no team had done since 1988

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning center Steven Stamkos celebrates after scoring in a February game against the Winnipeg Jets.

The last time a team reached a conference final without its top scorer was 1988. The Detroit Red Wings made it though their leader in goals was out injured. Maybe you've heard of him: Steve Yzerman, who is now the Lightning's general manager.

Does that mean the Lightning can win without Steven Stamkos, who led the Lightning with 36 regular-season goals? Well, yeah, it can win a couple of rounds.

But it's also fair to say the Lightning doesn't want to continue playing without him. Stamkos' return from a blood clot remains unknown. He could be back in the next series, or, in the last year of his contract, he might never play in a Lightning uniform again. The Lightning clearly is a better team with him than without. Still, it is showing it can compete without him.

Quick note: Those 1987-88 Red Wings who reached the Western Conference final without Yzerman? After they got him back, they lost that final to the Oilers in five games.

3. Speaking of Steve Yzerman ...

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman watches as the Lightning take on the Florida Panthers in a March game at Amalie Arena.

It's time to recognize Yzerman as one of the NHL's best executives.

He has been the Lightning's general manager for six years, and Tampa Bay has made the playoffs four times and has reached the conference final three times, including the past two seasons. Wonder how far the Lightning might have gone the other time if goalie Ben Bishop had not missed the 2014 playoffs with an injury.

Yzerman was the one who pulled off the trade for Bishop (for Cory Conacher), hired Jon Cooper and didn't trade Jonathan Drouin this season. Those are just three of the bigger moves that have the Lightning competing for the Stanley Cup.

4. The Lightning stomps on its opponent

Getty Images

Bryan Boyle celebrates a Game 5 goal against the New York Islanders in the playoffs' second round.

Last year's team went all the way to the Stanley Cup final. So this year's team still has a long way to go to match that impressive feat. However, this year's Lightning has been much better at closing out series than last year's.

In last spring's postseason, the Lightning was 3-3 in games in which it could have eliminated its opponent. It was 4-4 in games in which one team could have eliminated the other. Several times Tampa Bay was forced to go on the road to win key games because it had kicked away home games that either could have won a series or given it a commanding lead.

But this season the Lightning hasn't let opponents up off the mat. It is 2-0 in elimination games, not allowing a goal in either. Its most complete game of the playoffs so far was Sunday's Game 5 elimination of the Islanders. The 4-0 thumping was never in doubt and proved that Tampa Bay might have learned something from last season's disappointing efforts in some critical games.

5. Victor Hedman is a beast

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman celebrates a Game 5 goal against the New York Islanders in the second round of the playoffs.

Don't we say that after every Lightning playoff round?

ESPN.com is already mentioning the defenseman as a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the playoff MVP. Not only did Hedman pump in four goals in the series against New York, including two in the series-clinching fifth game, he helped do a number on star center John Tavares. The Islanders' best player was held to two points in the series, and none in its final four games.

When you are your team's best player and you help eliminate the other team's top player, what does that make you?

A beast.

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