Playing hockey in Florida seems counter intuitive seeing as the state almost never sees even a flake of snow, but this season the Tampa Bay Lightning are surprising a lot of people as they have posted a 4-1-0 record in their first five games, tying the Islanders with the second most points in the Eastern Conference with eight.
The two clubs will see their first of four meetings this season on Thursday night, in the Islanders first of seven 7:30 p.m. starts this year. In last season’s contests, the Islanders didn’t fare well as they lost three of four meetings with the Lightning, who finished out the regular season just one spot on top of the Islanders 13.
“They’ve brought in a new system this year with a new coach and pretty much new management as well. So it is a little bit unconventional, but that is why we have had some good practices and good video time to hopefully prepare,” said Islanders tough guy Zenon Konopka, who played in 74 games for the Lightning last season, posting 265 penalty minutes (the most in the League).
While Konopka was a key factor in many Tampa Bay wins last season, he knows Tampa Bay’s forward Steven Stamkos, who tallied a total of four goals in last year’s contests against the Islanders, was also a threat. This season, the center-man is averaging a goal a game with five, to go along with his four assists for a total of nine points.
“You have to know when he’s on the ice, especially on the power play,” Konopka said. “You have to know where he is and what he’s doing out there. We’re going to have to get physical with him early and try to take him off his game. Obviously he’s going to be tough to stop and we have to try to contain him.”
Islanders Head Coach Scott Gordon agreed, saying, “He’s obviously a guy that we have to keep an eye on and know when he’s on the ice. At the end of the day he’s that good, he’s going to get his chances and we have to respect the fact that we have to manage the puck well when he’s on the ice.”
In order to shut him and the rest of the Lightning down offensively, coach Gordon said the Islanders must enter the offensive zone making clean outlet passes and effective decisions.
The Lightning play a style of hockey that... allows them to take advantage of their skilled forwards, so how effective we are on our entries is going to really dictate how effective we play the game. - Scott Gordon
“The Lightning play a style of hockey that is very aggressive in their defensive zone and that put themselves into a situation where they can transition to offense in a good manor,” Gordon said. “It allows them to take advantage of their skilled forwards, so how effective we are on our entries is going to really dictate how effective we play the game.”
Part of that effectiveness will depend on the Islanders keeping their penalty minutes to a minimum. Last game in Toronto, the Isles only took two penalties, so the goal is to continue that streak as the Lightning are six for 10 on the power play at home.
Another important part of the game is making sure the Islanders will be able to find the back of the net at least a few times to solidify a lead early in the game. So it’s good that the Islanders welcomed John Tavares
back to their lineup on Saturday after he missed two games with a mild concussion.
In his first two games back, the sophomore forward tallied his first empty net goal of the season as well as his first career game-winning goal in overtime on Monday night to hand Toronto their first loss of the season.
“It looked like he (Tavares) felt more sure of himself,” said coach Gordon. “The plays he made obviously were great vision on his part. To see Moulson and know that he didn’t have a whole lot of time to make that play actually have the confidence to make it, shows how far he’s come since last season. His shot in OT was probably one of the best shots I’ve seen him take in that situation. Last year there were several times that he didn’t get good wood on those opportunities and it was good to see him get a hold of one and let it go.”
The Islanders have a lot of other offensive talent that have been stepping up in the absence of some of the team’s key players this season, including Blake Comeau (3 goals, 3 assists) and PA Parenteau
(1 goal, 5 assists) who each have six points this season, as well as Matt Moulson
who has tallied 3 goals and two assists for five points.
But the Islanders forward that has made the most noticeable impact on the team has been Josh Bailey
, who is tied with Comeau in the points category. After being injured on his second shift of Monday night’s contest with the Maple Leafs, Bailey finished the first period, but only made it out for one shift in the second period before watching the rest of the game from the bench.
According to Gordon, “(Bailey) saw the doctor (Tuesday) morning and there’s no fracture or anything like that, (he’s) just a little sore.” Good news for the Islanders, as coach Gordon said both Bailey and Islanders forward Trent Hunter (foot) are probable for making the trip to Tampa Bay on Thursday.
Who will get the start in net for the Islanders is still up for debate as coach Gordon is happy with both of his goaltenders performances in their first six games of the season and he wants to make sure that both Rick DiPietro
and Dwayne Roloson are getting a good balance of ice time and rest.
“There’s nothing written in stone, but I’m looking ahead and trying to balance all that,” Gordon said. “Obviously we have two guys that are more than capable (of playing) and the biggest thing is they have to support each other and know that we have the luxury of having two quality goaltenders.”
It doesn’t really matter who will be in net for the Islanders as Konopka is excited to face his old team, but when it comes down to playing the game, he’ll be all business.
“Well I’ll tell you, I have no friends on the ice,” Konopka said. “It’s going to be all business when we go down to Tampa. We’re there for two points and whatever needs to be done to get those two points will be done.”