Stirling: 'We need to score'

Updated: April 16, 2004, 9:29 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- After suffering a second straight shutout on home ice and falling behind 3-1 in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, exasperated New York Islanders coach Steve Stirling knew what his team needed to do in Game 5 to avoid their third straight first-round elimination.

"We need to score a goal," said Stirling, stating the painfully obvious. "We need to get an early goal. That would help us get a little bit of confidence and bring some excitement to our bench. When you get shutout two times in a row (and three times in the series), the most important thing is to score a goal."

In the playoffs, however, scoring a goal usually requires some thinking and a little hard work. In Game 4, desperately needing a win to even the series, the Isles didn't do enough of either. Instead, they allowed the Lightning to keep them on the perimeter for most of the evening. As a team, they weren't willing to fight through traffic to get to the front of the net, allowing Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to get squared to the shooter and have an unobstructed view of the puck for most of the evening. Of the Isles' 33 shots, a precious few came from the area directly in front of Khabibulin.

"We wanted to take away the middle of the ice," said Lightning defenseman Darryl Sydor. "They have a lot of guys who want to get into the middle. You don't want to give them room. They've got some skilled guys. You can't give them an inch because they'll take two."

Isles assistant captain Adrian Aucoin, a usually steady defender who was on the ice for all three goals against in Game 4, felt his team settled for what the Lightning gave them on Wednesday. He figures they'll have to do a lot more if they want to force a Game 6.

"We have to skate and we have to get pucks through (to the net)," Aucoin said. "They do such a good job of collapsing (to the middle) and taking away shots and blocking shots. And, their goalie seems to see the puck quite a bit. We have to work harder in their zone."

Asked if he thought his club was winning enough battles, Aucoin stoically replied, "Obviously not."

Stirling's response: "Probably not, when you don't score that's usually the case."

Captain Michael Peca was quick to agree with those assessments.

"We're making it too easy for Tampa," Peca said. "Everybody has to have commitment in all areas of the ice."

Aucoin would like to see his team do a better job preventing the Lightning from moving the puck quickly out of their zone. He feels that puts his team back on its heels.

"They're a smart team," Aucoin explained. "They move the puck really well. Their breakout seemed to take away a little bit from our momentum. They use a wide breakout. I think that relieved some of the pressure we tried to put on them."

While the Islanders try to figure out what went wrong, the Lightning feel they have room for improvement.

"We've played better in the time since I've been here," said Sydor, who was acquired from the Blue Jackets on Jan. 27. "(Despite the back-to-back shutouts) we're still not playing our best hockey."

Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella liked his team's effort, but isn't convinced that every member of his team is pulling his weight.

"I think we're improving," said Tortorella. "I don't think we have everybody in the same plain. I think if we want to stay successful, some other guys have to come on board.

"I still don't think, as a whole unit, that we understand what total desperation is," Tortorella continued. "As you go through and the series gets longer and you're more into it, everybody needs to kick in.

"But, we're improving. To me, that's the mental part of it -- understanding that how we started the series was not good enough and we've slowly improved."

Tortorella feels playoff games are about effort and persistence.

"I think, in the playoffs, you just look to find a way," Tortorella said. "You try to win your battles. You try to keep it simple and, hopefully, you get some big plays along the way.

"On Wednesday, we found a way," Tortorella continued. "For us, it's playing as a team and just finding a way to do it in a simple matter, especially on the road."

Now, the Lightning return home with a chance to close out the series with a win. The stakes are high for Tampa, because a loss forces a quick turnaround for Game 6 on Saturday night in New York. The Islanders are hoping they can turn the momentum -- which they appeared to do after a 3-0 win in Game 2 -- back in their favor.

"Obviously, it's one game at a time for us," Aucoin said. "If we win the next one, it's a back-to-back game right away and we'll carry the momentum back here and hope to take care of business. Then, it's a Game 7. That's the only way we can look it."

Yes, it is. Now, if the Islanders could just score a goal.

Around the Hrink

  • Lightning defenseman Jassen Cullimore, injured midway through Game 3, missed Game 4 due to an "upper-body" injury, which is believed to be a damaged right shoulder. Cullimore was replaced in the lineup by journeyman Nolan Pratt, who was plus-1 in 18:58. Cullimore is questionable for Game 5.

  • Tampa forward Cory Stillman suffered a "lower-body" injury on his first shift of the game and did not return, forcing Tortorella to juggle his forward lines throughout the game. Asked whom he would insert into the lineup if Stillman can't play in Game 5, Tortorella was non-committal. "No idea," he said. "I haven't thought that far ahead." Chances are it would be Martin Cibak, who played 63 games during the regular season.

  • Lightning right winger Martin St. Louis, who received a team-best 22:16 of ice time, broke the Islanders with an unassisted short-handed goal at 10:30 of the first period. St. Louis, who led the league with eight SHGs during the regular season, stripped the puck from Isles defenseman Kenny Jonsson, then deked goalie Rick DiPietro to the ice before sliding the disc into the net. "That was a big play," Tortorella said. Simply, it was another sensational individual effort by one of the very best players in the league.

  • Khabibulin, a childhood friend of Islanders center Alexei Yashin, has stopped 113 of 115 shots in the first four games of the series, including all 61 in the two games at the Nassau Coliseum. Khabibulin, who brings a shutout streak of 135:23 into Game 5, has a near-perfect .983 save percentage.

  • In a somewhat odd move, considering his team had been shutout in two of the first three games, Stirling scratched skilled veteran Cliff Ronning in favor of tough guy Steve Webb. In recent games, Ronning was getting very limited ice time, playing almost exclusively on the power play. Webb is a crowd favorite on Long Island. His hitting style (which seems to disappear on the road) creates some excitement among the fans in the building, but a quick check of the stats would indicate that Webb offers very little offensive punch. This year, in 10 NHL games, he recorded no points. In 321 career regular-season games, he has just five goals and 18 points. In the playoffs, he has zero points in 13 games. Ronning, meanwhile, has scored 306 goals (and 869 points) in 1,137 regular season games. In the playoffs, he has 29 goals and 86 points in 125 games. For the record, in Game 4, Webb had one shot, drew a penalty and took a penalty in 4:35 minutes of ice time.

  • Islander fans showed their displeasure by chanting "We suck," early in the third period. They offered several sarcastic cheers for third-period saves made by DiPietro. As the buzzer sounded, the disheartened fans littered the ice with plastic beer bottles.

    EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    E.J. Hradek

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
    E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.
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