You can’t be at your best every night during the two-month slog that is the NHL playoffs.
And for the second period of Game 4 Saturday at Nassau Coliseum, the Lightning weren’t anything close.
A third-period push got them within a goal and Ryan McDonagh nearly tied it in the closing seconds, but they were unable to overcome a middle period in which they allowed all three New York goals in a 3-2 loss.
The Lightning had 20 giveaways, including 17 in the first two periods, lost too many one-on-one battles, allowed an easy entry on one Islanders goal, lost track of their men on a couple of occasions and, in one case, lost a stick, as well.
The Islanders, of course, had something to do with the Lightning’s problems, as their defenders were active at the offensive blue line, moving deep into the zone to keep pucks alive for their forwards and maintaining pressure while forcing Tampa Bay to defend in its zone.
But the Lightning had only to look in the mirror to understand why the Stanley Cup semifinal series is now tied at two games apiece.
A Ross Colton turnover at the offensive blue line led to a transition the other way that resulted in Josh Bailey’s opening goal. Erik Cernak compounded things by allowing Anthony Beauvillier to gain the blue line in the Tampa Bay zone. Beauvillier dropped the puck to Brock Nelson, who sent a backhand pass across the ice to Bailey, whose shot from the right circle went through McDonagh’s legs and over goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s glove.
Mathew Barzal scored the Islanders’ second goal after Brayden Point lost his stick while checking Barzal below the end line. As Point appeared to get caught puck-watching in the slot, Barzal skated to an open spot to the left of the net and was in perfect position when Cal Clutterbuck’s shot from the right point hit Kyle Palmieri and dropped in front of Barzal.
On Matt Martin’s winning goal later in the period, Tampa Bay “just turned the puck over too many times,” coach Jon Cooper said.
The Lightning surged in the third with goals from Point and Tyler Johnson and continued to pressure the net right up to the final seconds. But they’d already dug themselves too big of a hole.
Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 4:
Playing with fire
The Lightning outshot the Islanders 11-4 and had the only power play in the first period but allowed the three best chances of the frame.
Palmieri hit the post on an odd-man rush after Nikita Kucherov lost his footing in the New York zone, and Barzal hit the post with a shot from between the circles.
The Lightning were fortunate to come out of the period tied after Leo Komarov broke in alone on Vasilevskiy after Point was stripped of the puck while trying to enter the Islanders zone on the power play. But Vasilevskiy made a blocker save to keep the game scoreless.
Say this for the Lightning: They never gave up.
Down three goals entering the third period, it would have been easy to pack things in and turn their attention to Game 5 Monday in Tampa.
Instead, they ramped up the pressure, took better control of the puck and scored twice in in the first seven minutes of the period.
Point scored on a toe drag from the top of the right circle, beating Varlamov stickside, just under four minutes into the period. Three minutes later, Johnson fired a laser from the left circle, beating Varlamov top shelf with Colton setting a screen in front.
Few teams have the ability to strike so often so quickly, which is why you can never count this team out, no matter how big the deficit.
The Islanders settled things down for a bit after head coach Barry Trotz called a timeout following Johnson’s goal, which brought the Lightning back within a goal with more than 13 minutes remaining.
But Tampa Bay continued to apply pressure and had several chances to tie, even after Victor Hedman was penalized for tripping Clutterbuck with 1:12 remaining.
Varlamov got a piece of a Colton shot from low in the left circle with his glove, sending the puck just wide of the net. Varlamov later robbed Kucherov from the slot after a nice cross-ice pass from Ondrej Palat.
McDonagh appeared poised to tie the score in the closing seconds when Kucherov tapped the puck to him from below the goal line out to the left circle. McDonagh spun away from a sliding Brock Nelson, pulling Varlamov out of the net, but defenseman Ryan Pulock dove in front of the empty net to stop McDonagh’s backhand shot.
No matter which team you were pulling for, the play left you breathless.
Islanders forward Jordan Eberle had a chance to drive Lightning wing Alex Killorn into the Tampa Bay bench with the door ajar early in the second period.
In a tight, physical series with emotions running high and a berth in the Stanley Cup final at stake, it would have been easy for Eberle to run Killorn.
But either aware of the potential for injury or in a show of sportsmanship, Eberle pulled up and avoided contact altogether.
It was a small moment in a game with far bigger ones, but a welcome sight, nonetheless.
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