The NHL’s best and hottest team visited Barclays Center on Sunday night and got punched, punched and punched again.
Less than five minutes into the first period, the Islanders were leading the Lightning by three goals and held their own the rest of the way behind goalie Thomas Greiss in a game they believed would be a test of where they stood.
They passed with flying colors, winning 5-1 and handing the Lightning just their second regulation loss in their past 21 games.
“I think it’s just a good win for our team against, honestly, the best team in the league,” winger Matt Martin said after assisting on a pair of goals. “We believe we’re a playoff team and this was a good test for us.”
Both teams were playing the second half of a back-to-back, but the Islanders (25-15-4) didn’t show it. They came out buzzing, taking a 3-0 lead just 4:43 into the game to rebound after losing to the Rangers 2-1 Saturday afternoon.
The Lightning (35-9-2), after beating the Sabres on Saturday night in Buffalo, entered Sunday boasting an 18-1-1 mark over their past 20 games. Their 75 points through 45 games had them on pace to finish with 131 points — one shy of the Canadiens’ NHL record set in 1976-77 — but they were stifled by Greiss and the Islanders, who improved to 6-0-0 in the second half of back-to-backs this season.
“I can’t explain it, I really can’t,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I wish I could because I could bottle it and a lot of the coaches in the league would want it. … When we’re focused, we’re just a much better team. In the back-to-back, you have to simplify sometimes, especially against high-[octane] offensive teams and quick-strike teams.”
After Robin Lehner had started six of the Islanders’ previous seven games, Greiss got back in net and was nearly perfect, stopping 38-of-39 shots for the win. Only a late second-period goal from former Ranger Ryan McDonagh kept Greiss from recording the first shutout against the Lightning all year.
Taking on the league’s most dangerous power play, the Islanders put themselves at risk by taking three penalties, but they killed off all three with Greiss aiding the cause.
“Their power play is ridiculous and for us to kill all the penalties is a very good sign for our penalty killing,” defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. “We didn’t give them too many opportunities except for the second period and Greisser stood on his head.”
After going 0-for-6 on the power play Saturday, Brock Nelson put the Islanders up 1-0 on the man-advantage just 1:21 into the game. Just over three minutes later, fourth-line winger Cal Clutterbuck and rookie defenseman Devon Toews scored 16 seconds apart for the 3-0 lead.
The Lightning began to assert themselves in the second period before the Islanders stemmed the tide and Casey Cizikas made it 4-0 at 11:03.
“To beat a team like that, of their caliber, it definitely speaks to the character in this room,” Cizikas said.
Trotz said he didn’t know if there were such things at signature wins, but pointed to last month’s 4-0 win over the Maple Leafs in addition to Sunday’s convincing win that were telling for the Islanders.
“There are certain games or certain times during the year when you get an opponent that makes you believe or cements what you’re trying to do as a team,” Trotz aid. “It sort of galvanizes you or it gives you a more solid foundation. I think we’ve had a couple of those.”