NEW YORK -- It might not be a marquee matchup like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, or the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars, but anyone who has ignored what's going on between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning in this Eastern Conference second-round series is missing out.
Here are three reasons this is the most entertaining second-round series of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs:
Fans are getting their money's worth: Through the first three games of this series, the action has been nonstop, high-energy with a dose of hate. The relentlessness has increased with each game, and it's only going to get better. It's likely it will take all seven games to decide the winner and who that winner will be is a toss-up. From the Islanders' standpoint, losing 5-4 in overtime in Game 3 after they played arguably their best game of the season could be demoralizing, but coach Jack Capuano believes his team can build off its dynamic performance and carry it over into Game 4 on Friday at Barclays Center.
Before Game 3, he stressed to his players the importance of getting an abundance of traffic and shots on Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, and that proved to be an effective game plan. Their defensemen were jumping up into the play more and contributing offensively. New York lost its one-goal lead in the closing seconds on a malfunction during a breakout attempt and the Lightning capitalized on the opportunity to tie the game, before winning in OT. Both teams increased the physical aspect of the game.
"That was Islander hockey," Capuano said. "We played to our identity [in Game 3], and that's the way that we're going to have to play if we're going to have success in this series."
As for the Lightning, they must feel pretty good about themselves because they took the Islanders' best and still came away with a victory.
"If you watched [Game 3], you would be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining hockey game," said Tampa coach Jon Cooper. "It had everything. It had goals. It had saves. It had hits. It had overtime. It had all the drama. Goalie pulled. Goal scored. And that's why we all stand around here and love this game because it's a ton of fun to be a part of this. This series has so much more, so long to go and everyone watching this series is looking forward to Game 4."
Last line of defense: Given that this series features two of the top goaltenders statistically in the playoffs, many would expect to see low-scoring games, but that hasn't been the case so far. A total of 19 goals have been scored in the first three games, and despite all the rubber going in, Bishop and New York's Thomas Greiss have both been outstanding. Timely saves have been key for both. Take Game 3 for example: The Islanders fired 17 shots, most of them Grade-A chances, but Bishop allowed only one goal and the Lightning gained momentum from that performance. Bishop finished with 35 saves.
"You need a guy to be there for you," Cooper said. "A goalie doesn't have to win you every game, he just can't lose you a game. Every game's not going to be 1-0, 2-0. Sometimes it's going to be 5-4. You just have to make sure you're the one who gave up four, and that's what he did. He found a way to win that hockey game for us. There are those guys who can win, and Ben's kind of finding a little niche for himself to win hockey games."
At the other end of the ice -- with Islanders fans chanting, "Jesus Greiss" -- New York's netminder was solid too, making 36 saves in Game 3. After the overtime loss, many Islander fans took to social media to ask the question whether or not Capuano would consider a goalie change and spell Greiss with Jaroslav Halak, who has been sidelined with a groin injury since March 8. Halak has been practicing with the team and said he's ready to go, if needed. But as long as Greiss continues to play the way he has, there's no way Capuano should make a goalie change.
Hit me with your best shot: The Stanley Cup is indeed the hardest trophy to win in all of sports. The sacrifices hockey players make during the two-month postseason journey is unmatched in any pro sport. The idea that one team won the hits category during a game is not a very good stat. All that means is your team was without the puck for the majority of the game. But when both teams combine for a total of 78 hits in a game, then you know it's an all-out battle. That was the case in Game 3, and you can expect that number to increase, especially from the Islanders. Both coaches have a defense-first mentality, but the physical, fast-paced games in this series has been so much fun to watch. Pucks are flying all over the place, players are blocking shots with reckless abandon and the bodychecks have been jaw-dropping.
"Both teams want to play a fast, physical brand of hockey and they want the pace as high as it can be," said Capuano, who added, "And, when you get teams that play with the pace they play with, things are going to happen."