TAMPA — Two weeks ago, when the New York Islanders came to Amalie Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning looked mortal for the first time this season.
The Lightning, then 15-2-2, took a 5-3 home loss to the Islanders and would drop three of four games. They hadn’t fully bounced back until Saturday, when they returned home and got a resounding 5-2 win against the San Jose Sharks.
“Nothing like coming home and getting a win for everybody to start feeling better about themselves,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Monday as the Lightning prepared for Tuesday night’s game against New York. “We had a shoot-first attitude (Saturday), which I really liked, and ultimately, you look fast when you’re not turning the puck over.”
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The Islanders (16-8-2) have overtaken the Lightning (18-6-2) as the league’s top scoring team, now averaging 3.7 goals per game. New York is 5-1 in its last six, scoring 4.3 goals in that stretch, including a 5-4 shootout win at the Florida Panthers on Monday night.
“A grindy win,” rookie Mathew Barzal told MSG Networks after he got the winning goal in shootout. “It’s huge to start the road trip off the right way like that. We wanted that second point in shootout. (Tampa Bay) is one of the top teams in the league, so it should be a good test.”
Barzal ranks second among rookies with 24 points, and the Islanders have two top scorers in center John Tavares (16 goals) and left winger Josh Bailey (5 goals, 25 assists).
They’ll go up against the league’s top two scorers in Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov (19 goals) and Steven Stamkos (11 goals, 26 assists). Kucherov broke out of a mini-slump with two goals in Saturday’s win.
Tampa Bay had owned the Islanders before the win last month — they swept them last year by a combined score of 14-2, this after winning four straight games to eliminate New York in the 2016 conference semifinals in five games.
The cross-Florida back-to-back won’t be easy for the Islanders — this is their sixth back-to-back of the season, and they’ve won both ends only once before, on Nov. 24-25 after splitting the first four.
The challenge might be on New York’s blue line — the Islanders rank just 24th in goals allowed, while the Lightning rank fourth in the league, giving up just 2.5 goals per game. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy still leads the league with 14 wins and ranks fifth with a 2.22 goals-against average.
While he has taken a huge majority of the Lightning’s games, New York is split nearly evenly between Jaroslav Halak (8-6-0, 2.86 GAA) and Thomas Greiss (8-2-2, 3.61). It’s likely Greiss on Tuesday, since he won the meeting two weeks ago and Halak was in net for Monday’s win in Florida.
Both teams are in the middle of long series — the Lightning are in the second of a four-game homestand, while the Islanders are in the second game of a four-game road trip, with Pittsburgh and Boston still ahead. The two teams meet again for a third time on March 22 in New York.