The way Jon Cooper sees it, the Lightning did everything but put a bow on the Islanders' first win of the Eastern Conference final.
“We were our own worst enemy,” the coach said after Friday’s 5-3 loss at Edmonton’s Rogers Place. “We handed that one to them. That was ... gift-wrapped.”
That’s what the Islanders do, how they got to this point. They aren’t a flashy team that blows by opponents, though center Mathew Barzal certainly has the speed to do that at times. The Islanders close in on opponents, gum up the system and force errors.
More often than that, teams walk away from the Islanders talking about how they didn’t play their best game, rather than they got out played. The Lightning said a version of that Friday night after Game 3. They mostly liked their game, but they made mistakes that cost them.
“When you’re playing elite teams like the Islanders are, you can’t give them chances, or the extra chances,” Cooper said. “And we hand-delivered a couple to them.”
The Lightning certainly created the opening for the game-winning goal. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh made a bad pass from deep in the zone to the blue line, and center Brock Nelson broke it up. The Lightning scrambled as they got back in the defensive zone and Nelson scored.
No one challenged McDonagh making the pass, but Nelson was right there to interfere with winger Barclay Goodrow trying to receive it.
On the Islanders' second goal, winger Anders Lee pulled Lightning forward Cedric Paquette out of the shooting lane by starting a shoving match. That created an opening for defenseman Adam Pelech to land a shot.
“We made some mistakes and they scored on them,” Ondrej Palat said, “But I don’t think that they outplayed us.”
The Lightning didn’t play a bad game. They gave themselves a chance to win, scoring twice in the third period to tie it up with eight minutes to go. This was not a game in which either was just the better team for the night.
Tampa Bay was missing Brayden Point (injured in Game 2), Alex Killorn (suspended after Game 2) and Steven Stamkos (out all postseason) — three of the top six forwards, who accounted for a third of the team’s regular-season goals. The Lightning still managed to come up with three goals. Maybe they would have won the game with one or three of those players, but the team didn’t fall apart without them.
But the Lightning did not have control of this one, which is how they like to play.
“They didn’t do anything that we didn’t know was coming or put us under pressure,” Cooper said of the Islanders. “We just made some bad decisions. A lot of times you can get away with them. It just seemed like tonight we couldn’t get away with any of them.”
That’s what the Islanders do. They made life difficult for teams. They put them in position to make mistakes. When the Islanders are on their game, they make opponents be perfect to beat them.
The Lightning weren’t perfect. They made costly mistakes.