For parts of Sunday afternoon’s game it was easy to wonder how these were the same teams that played for a spot in the Stanley Cup final last year, such was the difference between them.
In other parts of the game, one could wonder the Islanders might somehow overcome what seemed an overwhelming speed and skill gap between them and the Lightning, and whether that might say more about this group than anything else they’ve done in a quietly sterling month of March.
And then the Lightning answered that query with a resounding no, beating the Islanders 4-1 at UBS Arena in a game that teetered until Tampa pulled away in the third.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Anthony Beauvillier said. “We have a good group in there, good players, we know we can do great things, win big games in big moments.”
But not this game, not this day and not against this team. Even when the Lightning show cracks, as they did for parts of Sunday, Victor Hedman is still Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy is still Andrei Vasilevskiy and they can still punish errors.
The Islanders learned all of the above in a decisive second period, when — with a 1-0 lead — Hedman scored on the tail end of a power play with a powerful wrist shot, Alex Killorn gave Tampa the lead after Beauvillier’s misplay at the opponent blue line led to an odd-man rush and Vasilevskiy’s lone mistake came on a Jean-Gabriel Pageau goal that was overturned upon review for offside.
“It changes the momentum,” Pageau said later of the overturned goal. “Does it change our game plan, the way we played? No.”
That series of events let the Lightning take a 2-1 lead into the final 20 minutes, in a game where the Islanders had largely played them equal.
In the third period, the Lightning opened the gap further, with Ross Colton cleaning up a rebound with 10:50 to go. The Islanders had a chance to pull within one on a late power play, but failed to score, and soon after, Mikhail Sergachev scored on a rebound to give Tampa a 4-1 lead.
Colton’s goal would be the moment Islanders coach Barry Trotz quoted later in saying: “The third goal sorta sucked the air out of our bench for a while.”
The question of the day then became the status of Ilya Sorokin, who had 18 saves before being pulled with an upper-body injury in the third. It was unknown after the game whether or not Sorokin would travel for Tuesday’s game at the Blue Jackets.
For the first time since March 1-3, the Islanders have lost consecutive games — a stat that, in truth, is a credit to how they’ve played for the past four weeks. Sunday’s loss also snapped a six-game home winning streak.
The big takeaway from the weekend: The Islanders might be closer to last year’s form than they were earlier this season. They are still not close enough, and whatever good vibes have come from their recent play will be overshadowed by that plan and simple fact.