Lightning roll over Islanders in opening game of Eastern Conference Final

Tampa Bay Lighting centre Brayden Point (21) scores a goal past New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov (40) during the second period in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on Sept. 7, 2020. PHOTO BY PERRY NELSON /USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lighting centre Brayden Point (21) scores a goal past New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov (40) during the second period in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on Sept. 7, 2020. PHOTO BY PERRY NELSON /USA TODAY Sports

Jim Matheson  •  Edmonton Journal

The first time NHL teams see one another in a brand new hockey series it’s always a feeling-out-process, often with one team playing chess and the other checkers.

Dislike hasn’t morphed into hatred quite yet. It’ll come, but …

“Looking forward to going nose-to-nose with Coop,” said New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz as he talked warmly of the teenager days with Tampa Bay Lightning’s Jon Cooper at a high school in Saskatchewan. “Coop and I went to the same high school, Notre Dame at Wilcox (early 80s) and we actually took a photo together to send back to the old high school. Pride in the school.”

But school’s out and this is now, as Cooper’s deep team had a much better nose for the net than Trotz’s as Tampa blew the doors off the Islanders 8-2 in Game 1. Brayden Point scored twice and added three assists, making his point as the Conn Smythe playoff MVP leader now that Nate MacKinnon and Colorado are gone.

Nikita Kucherov also had a five-spot with a goal and four helpers, while Victor Hedman had a goal and two assists and Yanni Gourde added two snipes. The Islanders started Thomas Greiss for the first 11 minutes then went to Semyon Varlamov, with both helpless on an island.

It was an exercise in frustration and futility for an Islander team that looked tired to start the game and discombobulated as it wore on after having to go seven games to beat Philadelphia in the last series while the Lightning thundered past Boston in five and were hale and hearty.

“Bottom line is you have to take advantage of a tired team. Let’s be honest this was a one-off,” said Cooper. “They had to grind through a seven-game series and travel and play and change time zones. We got a bit of rest and healed some guys up. We’re not going to see scores like this again, or very doubtful we will.”

“Every time we made a mistake they scored,” admitted Trotz. “Their power play was good (three-for-six) and their top guys were sharp. They looked fresh and made us pay. We’ll just wash this game away. We lost some heart-breakers in overtime (Flyers), some real hard matches, and sometimes you get it handed to you, like tonight.”

The Lightning scored early and again and again, getting it going on the game’s second shot by Point, who went around the Isles first-pairing D Ryan Pulock and tucked it past Greiss for his first of two on the night for a guy who’s got eight goals and 23 points in the post-season.

“He came into this league as many young players do and you have to navigate your way around and you have to find your spot,” said Cooper. “He’s played in some big moments in his career and he’s been given some big assignments. I look back to our run in 2018 where he was a big reason we beat Boston. That was kind of his coming-out party. Injuries probably set him back a bit and the (NHL) Pause helped him get healthy. He’s really in command of his game.”

Halfway through the first Greiss, who blanked Philadelphia 4-0 in Game 7 Saturday to get to the Final Four, was on the bench for his tag-team partner Varlamov. Greiss gave up Hedman’s screened 40-footer on a power play and Ryan McDonagh’s shot through a sea of bodies and got the mercy hook after three in nine shots after Point set the table with his dazzling rush past Ryan Pulock.

“I was just able to get around the guy and cut to the net…(Blake) Coleman makes a great play to stay patient and let me get some speed,” said Point.

In the second, Gourde got one past Varlamov to make it 4-1 that the two refs Chris Rooney and Dan O’Rourke never saw go a foot into the net from the crease until the NHL Situation Room called in to say “uh, you missed that one guys.” Gourde, who also scored later, hadn’t celebrated either, mind you.

“In a lot of those situations everybody in the building … well, not everybody in the building (no fans in a pandemic) knows it’s in,” laughed Cooper. “Or the players all know when a puck goes into the net and nobody did. It was in and out so fast and I don’t think Gourdo knew. Pretty comforting when the horn went off. That’s only happening for one reason.”

“It was one of those plays where we needed to get inside, you have to do that against the Islanders. That’s where we were and Gourdo has scored a lot of goals like that, three feet from the net,” said Cooper.

Islanders winger Jordan Eberle, who went into the game, snake-bit with only three goals in 39 shots, slipped one through Andrei Vasilevskiy shortly after Point’s first goal and Nick Leddy had one midway through the third but that was it for the only team to make it to the Final Four through the qualification round and two other series.

In the end, a blow-out against the Isles who had to play their way into the Round of 16 unlike the Lightning in a seeding round.

“I don’t know if it’s a badge of honour … it’s not worth anything but there’s some personal pride. The others were top four seeds in the conference. We’ve had to go through an extra playoff round and if you lose the first one, you go home and you’ve been sitting there for the last six weeks,” said Trotz.

The Islanders have been alternating goalies for the past couple of years with Greiss and Robin Lehner last season and Greiss and Varlamov in 2019-2020, but they didn’t come into Game 1 thinking they would have to use both.

“You have to develop and trust that two goalies can get it done and both of our goalies have done that,” said Trotz, who would have needed both guys in net at the same time to keep the score closer.

This ’n that: The Isles gave up eight once in regular-season against Nashville Dec. 17, losing by five … The Islanders were supposed to play the Oilers at Rogers Place the day after the NHL Pause, six months ago, and now back in Eastern Conference final … Isles winger Cal Clutterbuck took a Mikael Sergachev power play ripper off his ankle in the second and had to be helped to the dressing room but was back for the third but only briefly … Varlamov took a high shot from Gourde early in the third and was shaken up but stayed in the game … Tampa captain Steve Stamkos has been ruled out of the entire Eastern Conference Final. He had core muscle surgery March 2 and while skating before Phase 3 camp, aggravated things in voluntary workouts. He was supposed to be out 6-8 weeks but last played Feb. 25 … Islanders veteran defenceman Johnny Boychuk, 36, is fit to play after suffering a concussion in the first game of the qualifying round series against Florida when Mike Matheson hit him in the head with an illegal check. But Boychuk, who needed 90 stitches around his right eye March 3 after getting kicked in the face by Habs’ Arturri Lehkonen, appears to have lost his right-shot spot to trade deadline pick-up Andy Greene.