TAMPA — The Lightning played a tight defensive game, limiting opportunities. In other words, they beat the Islanders at their own game.
The Islanders are one of the stingiest teams in the league. Coach Jon Cooper referred to them before Saturday’s game as playing a playoff style, making them a good test in the “dog days of the regular season.”
“You want to see can your team grind it out with a team that plays D?” he said after the 3-1 win. “I thought we did that. For the most part, I thought we were very much in control of the game.”
The Lightning didn’t explode offensively, but they did dictate the flow of the game. And they clamped down on the Islanders. No one did that better than Anthony Cirelli.
The center made the defensive play of the game in second period. Cirelli chased down Mathew Barzal, who won last month’s fastest skater competition, and broke up a breakaway without taking a penalty.
Cirelli forced Barzal to the backhand, then lifted his stick and stole the puck away. He did it all smoothly, making an extremely difficult play look easy.
“He is so good at stripping pucks,” said Brayden Point, who scored on a breakaway to put the Lightning on the board. “First you had to catch the guy and Barzy has wicked speed. A guy like that, with that much skill, he has a sense of where to put the puck. That was a real slick play.”
Point likened the play to a big block the way it energized both the bench and the arena.
Cirelli said he started off on the wrong side so had to get back and make up for getting caught that way.
“I was just waiting for him to open up his wing there for the shot,” he said. “I knew I was running out of space and had to try to make a push.”
No one else called it luck. Cooper said that’s just the kind of player Cirelli is, never giving up on a play. The coach pointed to Cirelli’s assignments against the Barzal’s top line or the Penguins’ first line led by Sidney Crosby the game before.
The strong defensive play continued with a nearly perfect third period, but for one penalty and ensuing power-play goal. The Lightning allowed only five shots in the frame, two of which came on that penalty.
Carter Verhaeghe gave the Lightning a two-goal lead, on an insurance goal that turned into the difference-maker. Steven Stamkos added an empty-netter with 1:02 left.
With the win, the Lightning avoided being beaten by a team three times in a season. No one has done that to them since the Bruins in 2017-18.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.