Cirelli’s overtime winner sets up Stanley Cup Final between Lightning and Stars

The Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final thanks to overtime hero Anthony Cirelli, who beat a brilliant Semyon Varlamov at 13:18 of sudden death to give Tampa a hard fought six game series win over the scrappy Islanders. They’ll face the Stars for Lord Stanley beginning Saturday night. AP Photo credit Tampa Bay Lightning via Getty Images

It looked like it would be a repeat of Game Five for the Lightning. Once again unable to score on a hi-sticking double minor that gave them even more power play time in overtime, they nearly let the determined and scrappy Islanders to get off the mat and level the series.

Had Brock Nelson been able to bury a clear-cut shorthanded breakaway on a dismal turnover, there would’ve been a winner advance or loser go home Game Seven. But Andrei Vasilevskiy made his biggest save of the very competitive Eastern Conference Final that required a few extra periods to decide. He was able to get his glove up to deny Nelson’s bid. He’ll probably be thinking about that chance the next couple of months.

That’s how close the Islanders were to forcing a deciding seventh game last night. Instead, following a maddening power play shift by the all too predictable Mat Barzal, Cirelli was able to get in on the forecheck on defenseman Devon Toews. Before you knew it, Barclay Goodrow fed him for the series clincher that banked in off the goalpost and just past an otherwise brilliant Semyon Varlamov to send the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final against the rested Stars.

Sometimes, it’s a game of inches. Even with the Bolts holding another edge in shots (48-27), it was much closer following the first period that saw the teams trade goals 2:13 apart. The Lightning held a 17-6 shots edge and really dictated the play. If not for a sharp Varlamov, who finished with a playoff career high 46 saves, this one could’ve been over early. He gave his team a chance to extend the series.

Despite early goals coming from defensemen Toews and the utterly otherworldly Victor Hedman, who was by far the best player in the series, nobody would score again the rest of regulation. It didn’t matter how many shots Tampa fired on Varlamov. He wasn’t having it. So locked in was the Isles netminder that even screens didn’t bother him. He shutdown everything and didn’t allow any rebounds. You could make a case that he was the game’s first star even though his team lost 2-1 to the Lightning in sudden death.

Vasilevskiy wasn’t bad either. He still made 26 saves and didn’t allow the Islanders to steal it. Believe me, they could’ve the way the second half of the game was played. It turned more into a grinding, forechecking physical style that Islanders coach Barry Trotz prefers. That lunchpail gritty game resulted in some good opportunities. But Vasilevskiy was strong in stopping the best Isles that included Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, Matt Martin and Ryan Pulock.

The Lightning were bolstered by the return of top center Brayden Point, who despite whatever is bugging him, was again effective while working between the dangerous Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, who nearly had the winner on a backdoor play. But twice, he couldn’t slam home Mikhail Sergachev’s diagonal feed at the open net. The latter he got his stick on and sent it just wide. Following the shift, all he could do was shake his head and bury it at the Lightning bench.

Remarkably, Toews took a pair of needless delay of game minors. One with under seven minutes left in regulation when it was a redirect that felt incidental. That rule needs to be adjusted to interpretation. You would hate to see a team burned by it.

With not much happening and the game destined for overtime, the Bolts top line made a late push to end the suspense. Kucherov came close with under 30 seconds remaining. He eventually drew a errant hi-stick from veteran Andy Greene that also bloodied his nose. That meant four minutes. The penalty came with 23 seconds left.

However, the Lightning couldn’t come close to finishing off the Islanders, whose strong penalty kill went five-for-five in killing the Tampa power play. Hedman had the best chances with a couple of shots just missing the mark. Varlamov also got a piece of one for a superb save with traffic. He did everything he could.

A year ago, the signing was questioned by many including myself due to GM Lou Lamoriello letting Vezina finalist Robin Lehner walk. It’s safe to say Varlamov worked out well. He will work with top goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin in the future. Thomas Greiss will undoubtedly leave.

It was the Lightning, who got caught napping with too many men out 8:49 into OT. Point noticed it, but changed too late. Finally after five of six power plays including three straight, it was the Islanders turn. At least that’s what they thought.

Instead, they could do nothing with the two minute power play. It was due to Barzal, who stubbornly refused to alter his style. A splendid skater with great acceleration, the number one center attempted to carry the puck over the Tampa blueline three times. All three resulted in turnovers including a telegraphed pass that was easily intercepted and cleared down the ice. He made it easy on the four Lightning penalty killers. It wasn’t a good series for Barzal. Let’s leave it at that.

It only took the Bolts a few minutes to finally finish off the Isles for good. On a Alex Killorn soft dump in outside the designated area which in itself is a bad rule, a hustling Cirelli recovered the puck and got it over to Goodrow, who’d been effective in Game Six. An Isles defensive mishap cost them dearly. Goodrow centered for an open Cirelli for a one-timer that clanged off the far post and took a favorable carom off Varlamov and just over the goal line for the game-winner at 13:18 of overtime.

Following a video review, they confirmed the obvious. That the Lightning had won and were going back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years. They’ll play for Lord Stanley against another gritty opponent in the bigger and more skilled Stars. It all starts tomorrow night at 8 EST.

It was a great run by the Islanders, who played about as well as they could in the two elimination games. Even if the shots and attempts said otherwise, they made it tough on the Lightning. There were so many physical battles. It was a grinding series that illustrated why Trotz is such a good coach. He gets his teams to buy in.

They might’ve fallen short. But the way they played was admirable. That’s about all I can say regarding the Rangers’ bitter rival. They had a real shot to push it seven against arguably the best team left. The Stars will have something to say about that. That shapes up to be a good final. It could be a long one.

Congrats to the Lightning. Especially good friend Dan Wheeler, who had to be extremely nervous last night. I know I would’ve been. The Isles put a scare into the Bolts, who by advancing definitely let coach Jon Cooper exhale on the bench. You should’ve seen his reaction once it was official. It wasn’t anything like you’d expect. I don’t blame him. He deserves credit for getting his skilled team to play a more patient and taxing style. They had to.

GM Julien BriseBois gets due for bringing in those gritty team oriented character guys that help you win these kinds of games. The additions of Pat Maroon, Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn helped a lot. Every team needs the heavy lifters.

It should be more of the same against Dallas. Expect a hard fought series. One which will feature three of the best defensemen in hockey led by Hedman with Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg quite a duo for the Stars. It’s also a second chance for Ryan McDonagh to win a Cup. He sure knows how hard it is to get back. In 2014, he was in peak form as an elite defenseman who was the anchor of the Rangers defense. Good luck to him and the guy I give a hard time to, Kevin Shattenkirk.

Congrats also go out to the Islanders on what they did. It’s commendable considering they had to go an extra few games to beat the Panthers just to make the real tournament. They handled both the Caps and Flyers even if the latter never gave up. In some twisted irony, the Isles played that role against the Lightning. It just didn’t reach a Game Seven.

I’ll have more thoughts and observations on things in my next post.

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Kravtsov continues hot streak for Traktor Chelyabinsk

Vitaly Kravtsov is on fire. He continues to score goals for his KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk.

Having entered tonight’s match with three in five games, Kravtsov got two more for his Russian team.

Виталий Кравцов горит! 🔥🔥

You can google translate that if you want. Let’s just say it’s very good. Or очень хорошо!

Here was the first goal he scored. I actually like this one better.

Pretty sick skill by Vitaly. Who doesn’t love a nice goal in transition where a player fakes out the D and then rifles one home? There’s a lot to like so far about Kravtsov, who was more of a playmaker for Russia at the 2020 IIHF U20 World Junior Championships. He had two goals and four assists in the seven games to help Russia win a silver medal in a 4-3 loss to Canada.

Of all the young Rangers prospects prior to them making it official next month with Alexis Lafreniere, I like Kravtsov’s upside the most. It’s his combination of skating and skill that can make a player like Pavel Buchnevich expendable. He’s shooting the puck more for Traktor and showing why the Rangers scouts liked him enough to select him ninth in the 2018 NHL Draft.

He doesn’t turn 21 until December 23 right before Christmas. So far, so good for Kravtsov.

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Sabres acquire Eric Staal from Wild for Marcus Johansson

In a straight up one for one trade without any salary retained, the Sabres and Wild made a interesting deal. Buffalo acquired veteran center Eric Staal from Minnesota for forward Marcus Johansson.

It’s a deal that should help the Sabres for the short-term. Lacking a number two center to play behind star pivot Jack Eichel, they went out and got the 35-year old Staal. A wise move that can provide some additional scoring punch in the middle. He has one year left on his contract at $3.25 million through 2021.

Johansson will move to his fifth NHL team. Originally a Capital, he wound up in New Jersey and was rented by Boston before landing with the Sabres. A versatile forward who can play left wing or shift over to center, he’s owed $4.5 million for next season. He’ll be 30 by the time 2020-21 begins.

Each player had a moderated 10 team No Trade list. Neither the Sabres or Wild were on it. It’s nice to see an old fashioned straight up trade minus the cap headaches. Clearly, each team is looking for a change.

Though I like it better for the Sabres, who know with Staal in one for one year, he’ll have plenty of incentive following a down year. He posted 19 goals and 28 assists for 47 points in 66 contests for the Wild. His lowest output since he totaled a combined 39 between the Hurricanes and Rangers where it didn’t work out.

Staal was much more successful in St. Paul where he produced 240 points (111-129-240) over four years. That included recording 42 goals and 76 points in ’17-18. For his 16-year career, the former Hurricanes ’03 second overall pick who led them to a Stanley Cup, has registered 436 goals with 585 assists for a total of 1021 points over 1240 games.

He should be a positive influence for former Sabres 2019 first round pick Dylan Cozens. They can remain patient with him and do what’s best for his development.

As for Johansson, he’s coming off a disappointing season in which he had only nine goals in 60 games. Not what the Sabres had in mind. He did wind up with 21 assists and 30 points, but it wasn’t enough production for the two-year investment they made. Maybe a change of scenery will give him a boost.

The Wild have a interesting roster with Kevin Fiala emerging as a young star while veteran Zach Parise remains there. They just locked up strong left defenseman Jonas Brodin to a seven-year, $42 million extension. That could mean Matt Dumba becomes available given their defensive depth.

With the official off-season approaching soon, we’ll see more interesting things develop throughout the NHL. The Stars are still waiting for a dance partner for the Cup with the Islanders not cooperating last night. Game Six is tomorrow night with the Lightning again looking to close them out.

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Eberle’s clutch goal in double overtime helps Islanders force Game Six

Semyon Varlamov gives a little assist to help Johnny Boychuk back to the bench. The Islanders are still alive after Jordan Eberle scored at 12:30 of the second overtime in a 2-1 win in Game Five last night over the Lightning. AP Photo credit New York Islanders via Getty Images

For most of last night’s game, it felt like two teams battling for as little space as possible. That’s just how coach Barry Trotz prefers it. The slower pace and tighter checking favored his team.

Despite getting outshot by a good margin in half the six periods that were required, the Islanders staved off elimination in the Eastern Conference Final to force a Game Six tomorrow night. Jordan Eberle played the hero by scoring in double overtime off a two-on-one rush at 12:30 of the second overtime. Or basically 92:30.

It didn’t quite go five overtimes like that unbelievable Game One the Lightning won over the Blue Jackets five weeks ago to start the first round. In that one, top center Brayden Point won it. He also closed out that series. Unfortunately, Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn’t have his most valuable forward available on Tuesday evening. Still nursing an injury, he sat out after a goal and assist performance in their Game Four victory.

It’ll be interesting to see if Point returns for an all important sixth game. They’ve lost both times in the series without him. That would be Game Three and Game Five. If they don’t want to go seven against the resilient Islanders, who played good enough to pull out a hard fought 2-1 victory yesterday, the Bolts will probably need Point. He is that much of a difference maker.

The Isles still have to be thankful to still be alive. They easily could’ve lost. Outplayed for two of three periods in regulation, they were outshot 25-16. Yes, that was the actual shot total for the first 60 minutes. A credit to how hard it was to find real estate. Overall, the Lightning totaled 37 shots to the Islanders’ 24. That included 8-3 in the second OT prior to Eberle converting a Anders Lee feed at the doorstep past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

On the play, a critical mistake was made by Kevin Shattenkirk. Following a face-off win in the Islander zone, the former Blueshirt wound up for a slap shot. It took too long. With pressure coming up top, he fanned on it. That allowed Lee to race the other way with a trailing Eberle for a two-on-one with only Mikhail Sergachev back. With Shattenkirk unable to recover, Lee was able to lay a perfect pass across a sliding Sergachev for a sweet Eberle finish.

It touched off a celebration for the underdog Isles, who won’t go down easily. The highlight being a cool Semyon Varlamov celly in which he did a funny dive across the ice to enjoy the moment with happy teammates. The number one goalie deserved it after keeping his team alive with 36 saves. Without him, the series ends. He’s performed very well and proven Jim Gregory Award winner Lou Lamoriello right.

The Isles got off to a slow start against a determined Lightning, who looked intent on finishing them off. In fact, they got eight of the first nine shots. But Varlamov kept his team afloat with some important stops.

As they settled in, the Islanders took advantage of a bad Nikita Kucherov tripping minor on Brock Nelson. After failing to do much in the first half of the power play, a good rush started by Mat Barzal allowed Nick Leddy to set up Ryan Pulock for a quick one-timer that beat Vasilevskiy at 15:41. Barzal gained the Tampa zone and dropped for Leddy at the point. He fed an open Pulock for his first goal in 18 games.

After closing to within 9-5 in shots, the Isles took a 1-0 lead to the locker room. It was crucial for them to get the first goal. Anytime you want to come back from a 3-1 series deficit, you want to score first and not play from behind. They never trailed.

One of the big reasons for how hard it was for the offensive minded Bolts to get shots as the contest went on was the return of veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk. After sitting out for most of the playoffs, he was reinserted by Trotz, who went with an 11 forward, 7 D alignment. Only the second time he’s done that all season. The other coming way back on Oct. 25 last year. It worked. Boychuk showed no signs of rust. The gritty defenseman delivered five hits and had six blocked shots in 17 shifts (12:04).

The Isles are without center Casey Cizikas, who’s done for the rest of the postseason after leaving the bubble. Maybe Trotz realized that it was better to have an extra defenseman to help prevent the explosive Tampa offense, who even without Point had plenty of chances to close the series out.

It was early in the second that they drew even. In a transition started by Luke Schenn, Blake Coleman took a low shot off Varlamov that allowed the puck to come over to a pinching Victor Hedman, who picked high short side on a screened Varlamov for his eighth goal of the postseason at the four-minute mark of the period. It was a well executed play with Coleman able to find Hedman wide open. He didn’t blow it by, but used precision.

No wonder he won another Norris as the league’s best defenseman. Nobody is better right now in the sport. He’s not only lethal offensively, but very strong defensively. A complete player, who Cooper leans on heavily. He played 36:12 for the game. Only Kucherov (36:19) had more.

A key moment came late in the second when the Lightning had a goal reversed. They thought they took the lead after Cedric Paquette blew up Scott Mayfield and passed back for an open Carter Verhaeghe for a high shot that beat Varlamov with nobody covering him. However, Trotz wisely challenged for offside. Even though the officials correctly waved off icing, it was obvious that the Lightning were in the Islander zone prior to the puck. How they missed it I don’t know.

The successful challenge by Trotz changed the momentum. Had that counted, his team would’ve been in a lot of trouble. It’s a good thing the coaches have these challenges. Especially when it’s such an egregious error that’s easily correctable. It allowed the Isles to remain tied entering the third.

There really wasn’t much going on. Even with the Lightning doubling up the Islanders in shots (10-5), scoring chances were hard to come by. Each goalie made the key saves. When Anthony Beauvillier hi-sticked and cut Sergachev with 1:23 left in regulation, it handed the Bolts a golden opportunity to finish off the series. They came close to scoring before the end of regulation. Tyler Johnson had a deflection just miss on a good Hedman wrist shot.

The Islanders successfully killed off the remainder of the 2:37 at the start of overtime. The best chance in a tightly contested period where the shots were only 4-4 came when Barzal was in on Vasilevskiy, who beat him by getting his glove on the puck. Barzal wasn’t quite able to elevate it in the one-on-one.

It was astonishing how little action there was. There was no room to do anything. A credit to how well each team defended. Almost before the buzzer, the Isles survived a scare when Kucherov was buzzing around the net. His backhand going wide behind the net. He wasn’t happy because it looked like an Isles defenseman closed their hand on the puck. But it wasn’t called.

The start of the second extra session was more wide open. There was a lot of skating with both sides going for it. This favored the Bolts. In fact, following an Ondrej Palat rebound, Kucherov nearly ended it from a sharp angle. With the loose puck sitting there, he was checked just enough by Mayfield to have his rebound go off the outside of the post. If he had more time, we wouldn’t be talking about a Game Six.

Kucherov also set up Anthony Cirelli on a smart back pass for a good chance that Varlamov denied. The Islanders netminder also stopped Sergachev after the young defenseman made a good move towards the net for a shot that he swallowed up. Without him, the Isles aren’t alive.

It was on a Tampa offensive draw that the Islanders turned the tables. Off a Johnson win back to Shattenkirk, he took too much time winding up. The result was disastrous with Lee intercepting the fanned shot and quickly countering the other way with a hustling Eberle who caught up. Lee found the seam across for a sweet Eberle finish that gave the Isles the win at 32:30 of sudden death.

Now, we have a interesting game coming up on Thursday. All the pressure is on the Lightning. The Islanders are playing with house money. Sure. They’re still facing elimination. But they’re where they want to be. It’s Tampa that’s expected to win this series. More questions will get answered tomorrow night.

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Kravtsov scores third goal in win for Traktor Chelyabinsk

So far, so good for Vitali Kravtsov. The 20-year old Rangers forward prospect is off to a fast start for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). He scored his third goal in five games to help lead them to a 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow.

Kravtsov opened the scoring when he was able to take a pass, skate in and beat the Sparta goalie with a good wrist shot in the slot. Here is the play below:

The real positive sign is he’s been shooting the puck and getting results. In a previous game, Kravtsov recorded five shots on goal. If he’s going to be used extensively like they’re doing so far in Russia, that bodes well for his development.

It’s all about improving and boosting his confidence following a tough season where he went back and forth between the AHL and KHL.

In other prospect news, Lias Andersson has continued to be productive during the preseason for HV-71 in Sweden. I’ll withhold judgment until they start up the regular season.

You’ll see more European Rangers prospects playing overseas due to the unconventional NHL season that’s still going on. The Stars are waiting to see who they’ll face in the Stanley Cup. It’ll either be the Lightning or Islanders. Tampa can wrap it up in Game Five later tonight.

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Stars advance to Stanley Cup Final

The Stars pour off the bench to celebrate a Game Five won they won’t soon forget. They came back to defeat the Golden Knights 3-2 last night to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. AP Photo credit Dallas Stars via Getty Images

While I went to sleep with them trailing by two goals in the third period, the Stars had other ideas. Astonishingly, they came back to eliminate the Golden Knights 3-2 in sudden death last night.

Given how the series was played, I didn’t believe the Western Conference Final would end in five games. For about 50 minutes, it looked like that would be true. Vegas on a first period breakaway goal from Chandler Stephenson and a third period tally from Reilly Smith had a 2-0 lead.

In fact, they had only allowed 15 shots at that point. I think they led in shots 28-15. Being tired, I decided to shut the game off and rest. When I awoke a few hours later, I was shocked to see our chat talking about the Golden Knights going home. Based on the reactions from Brian and Robert, who obviously razzed friend George due to his Vegas Brew penchant, I sat in my bed puzzled.

What happened? Well, the Stars got back in it on a Jamie Benn rebound. The veteran Stars captain came through in that series. He was able to deliver some big goals at key moments. While Tyler Seguin couldn’t finish, he sacrificed his body by diving in front to block shots. That was notable. If you’re not scoring, you can still contribute to a successful series victory. To his credit, he did.

Late in regulation, rookie Joel Kiviranta scored on the power play off another rebound with traffic to tie the score with 3:47 left in regulation. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a seeing eye point shot that can give a goalie trouble if you get bodies to the net. Dallas had two and it paid off against Vegas starter Robin Lehner to force overtime.

In it, one of those needless Delay of Game penalties on Alex Tuch came back to haunt the Knights. John Klingberg froze the four Vegas penalty killers enough to then slide a good pass across for a quick one-timer from Denis Gurianov, who was able to sneak a good shot off Lehner and by him short side for the series clincher.

Gurianov, who earlier this postseason had a four goal game, played the ultimate hero to send the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final. He’s been a factor throughout their run. They were patient with him after he came over from Russia. Now, he’s paying dividends. This is advisable to the Rangers regarding Russian prospect Vitali Kravtsov, who’s spending the season in the KHL where he already has two goals in four games for Chelyabinsk Traktor. Sometimes, patience pays off.

So, for the first time since Y2K was a thing, the Dallas Stars will play for the Cup. It’s been 20 years since they were unable to successfully defend the Cup in a hard fought six game classic to the Devils. The last two games needed five overtimes. Mike Modano won Game Five in triple overtime. Then Jason Arnott won Game Six in double overtime on a gorgeous set up from Patrik Elias to give the Devils their second Cup.

Dallas has had some chances since then, but lost in the Conference Final over a decade ago. They had one run with Brad Richards before he left for the Rangers. It just wasn’t to be.

This time, in a crazy year, they are the last team standing to represent the West. They were better than the Avalanche and Golden Knights to earn this trip to play for Lord Stanley. That is a great accomplishment. Overlooked by me and many other pundits coming in, I think we forgot how close they were to beating eventual 2018-19 champion St. Louis. It took a goal from Pat Maroon in sudden death of Game Seven to help the Blues advance past the second round. I underestimated them.

The credit goes to Anton Khudobin, who has been a rock in net. He’s stood on his head and proven to be the right goalie at the right time for these pesky Stars. They do it with grit, determination and a lot of board battles. They win ugly. They don’t blow you away in terms of offense like potential opponent Tampa ‘if’ they can finish off the Islanders.

Dallas is all heart. Even when Seguin isn’t scoring, Benn and Alex Radulov can deliver in big moments. When they struggle, it’s other players like Gurianov, Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz and the great D tandem of Miro Heiskanen and Klingberg who do the damage. How about Jamie Oleksiak. He only set up the Kiviranta Game Seven winner last round in overtime from behind the net. Corey Perry isn’t what he once was, but always battles. That experience helps. So do gritty guys like Blake Comeau, who do the little things that help win at this critical time of year.

So, it’s the Stars who’ll play in the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup. They lost twice as the Minnesota North Stars in ’81 to the Islanders and ’91 to the Penguins. It wasn’t until ’99 that they won the Cup in Dallas by defeating the Sabres in six games on Brett Hull’s controversial goal in triple overtime due to his toe being in the crease. A foolish rule that was changed. They lost to the Devils in six in 2000. The only Conference Final since came in ’08 when they lost to eventual champion Detroit in six.

Now, they’re here despite the low scoring and tight checking style they play. A strict system contingent on defense and the goaltending of Conn Smythe candidate Khudobin, who’s come up with many huge saves during this run, it’s a style similar to the 2003 Devils. The only difference is that team boasted Hall of Famers including Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and great coach Pat Burns. They didn’t always win due to the star players. Insert Jeff Friesen, Grant Marshall and Mike Rupp.

That’s how the Stars are. To think it’s longtime veteran coach Rick Bowness, who took over for Jim Montgomery, they deserve a ton of credit. They’ll now await who their opponent will be.

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Lightning put Islanders on the brink

For more than half of Game Four, the Islanders were in position to even their best-of-seven series against the heavy favorite Lightning. Semyon Varlamov had made some big saves to keep a strong Bolts surge off the scoreboard. He certainly did his part.

Brock Nelson continued his superb postseason. After getting the game-winner late in Game Three, the key second line center skated around three Tampa players into open space before picking his spot over Andrei Vasilevskiy’s glove for a beautiful opening goal at 11:27 of a better second period for the Islanders. Josh Bailey picked up the lone assist to pad his team-leading scoring total to 20 points including 18 helpers.

Things were falling into place for Barry Trotz’s gritty and resilient team to level the Eastern Conference Final at two apiece. They had the momentum following a wild 5-3 victory on Friday night in which Nelson scored the clutch winner with 3:25 left in regulation to offset a two goal Lightning rally. Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored into a open net while taking a slash from a frustrated Nikita Kucherov, which led to some pleasantries exchanged from each side. That included Matt Martin avenging Nelson by quickly defeating Barclay Goodrow in a scrap.

There is no love lost between these teams, which is the way it should be at this point. You had Cal Clutterbuck injure Brayden Point in Game Two on a not so incidental play that kept the top Bolts center out of Game Three. You saw the Lightning target Nelson with Goodrow catching the center with a dangerous high crosscheck that could’ve resulted in a suspension. Alex Killorn served a game for boarding Nelson from behind. He was back along with Point for the rare Sunday 3 PM matinee in a huge game.

These are strange times. So, the NHL and NBC agreed to have the Islanders and Lightning play Game Four as NFL Week One was in full swing. It was either that or go up against the Sunday night game between the Cowboys and Rams. There are so many sports happening due to the pandemic. You have plenty of baseball along with NBA Playoffs. Plus a very good five set men’s final won by a cramping Dominic Thiem over Alex Zverev at the US Open. The golf version of the Open begins on Thursday.

It’s beyond odd to have the Stanley Cup Playoffs still going as Fall approaches. That’s how it is following a four-plus month layoff. The hockey has still been compelling. The Isles played their way in by besting the Panthers. Then followed it up with a five game win over the Caps and seven game triumph over top seed Philadelphia. Maybe those extra two games they had to play have hurt them in this round.

It felt like once Nelson scored his team best ninth of the playoffs for a 1-0 lead, the Islanders could actually turn this series into a best of three. They sure had to feel good on the bench following Nelson’s great individual effort. But things sure changed in a hurry.

Like a Lightning bolt, Tampa Bay struck back twice within a 12-second span to flip the script. First, on a strange play where Yanni Gourde lofted a long seeing eye pass to towards the Islanders blueline, former Devil Blake Coleman was able to get to the puck, keep it onside and avoid Varlamov’s poke check to tuck a backhand into a open net. That play came only 15 seconds after the Nelson goal.

What happened next was stunning. Jon Cooper sent his ever dangerous top line out. It didn’t take long for the cohesive trio to turn the Isles inside out for what proved to be the crushing game decider from Ondrej Palat at 11:54. It was a work of art between Point and Kucherov, who received a pass and drew two Isles before making a no look backhand feed for a cutting Palat for the sweet finish past a helpless Varlamov. Magical stuff.

That’s the kind of unique skill they possess. It happened that quickly. The way they’re playing, it’s hard to see the Isles rallying from a 3-1 series deficit. They’ll give it the old college try. You know a Trotz coached club won’t quit starting Tuesday night in Edmonton. They’ll have to do better than one goal on Vasilevskiy, who’s an elite goalie that boasts a Vezina. They were outplayed for a large portion yesterday.

Despite a better played second in which they out-chanced the Lightning 10-7, they found themselves trailing by a goal after 40 minutes. Vasilevskiy made an awkward stop on Nelson, who had the Tampa goalie down. But his high short side shot wouldn’t go. The Bolts netminder was able to make the save. He also denied Mat Barzal and Bailey on a rebound in tight. Barzal has created opportunities, but isn’t scoring. He hasn’t been enough of a factor in this series. That must change if the Isles are to save their season.

In the third, Point finished off another nice passing play started by Kucherov and then Palat, who made a perfect centering pass for the Lightning center in front. After a sliding Varlamov denied him pointblank, Point was able to tuck a backhand stuff in for the crucial insurance marker at 3:33. For a player who didn’t look good exiting the second period of Game Two on the Clutterbuck hit, he sure didn’t show any aftereffects. He was on Point recording a goal and assist while going plus-two with five shots and seven of ten face-off wins in 18:24. He’s been the driving force behind the Lightning run.

The Isles didn’t go away, but never were able to get that second goal by Vasilevskiy, who finished with 26 saves. As for counterpart Varlamov, he did well in stopping 32 of 35. None of the goals were his fault. In fact, his brilliant play in a lopsided first kept the Isles in it. This could’ve been uglier than the 4-1 final score with Pat Maroon tallying a backhand into a vacated Isles net with 2:24 remaining.

So, it’s the very focused Bolts a win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. They’ve played with a purpose this whole postseason. Perhaps overcoming the Blue Jackets the way they did by winning one goal games with Point playing both the five overtime hero in Game One and the ultimate one in the first OT of Game Five, was the perfect way to set the tone. They haven’t needed injured star center Steven Stamkos, who remains out indefinitely. They even overcame a injury that forced Ryan McDonagh out of a few games in their five game conquest of the Bruins in the second round.

Cooper’s 11 forward, 7 defensemen alignment that includes Luke Schenn and Erik Cernak, continues to be successful. Former Rangers McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk have been a key part of it for a team that added grit by getting Zach Bogosian off waivers after Buffalo didn’t have any use for him. He’s definitely fit in well. Maybe playing on a much better roster is why. It doesn’t hurt to have Victor Hedman anchoring the back end.

The question going into Game Five is what do the Islanders have left. They play balls out under Trotz, who rolls four lines and six D. He lost Casey Cizikas, who left the bubble for a undisclosed reason. So too did vet Tom Kuhnackl. Ross Johnston played in Cizikas’ place. Maybe that changes for the Isles’ second elimination game. They were very successful in a dominant 4-0 shutout over the Flyers last round.

This is a different animal. We’ll see what they are made of. The winner could be seeing the pesky Stars, who have used the brilliant goaltending of Anton Khudobin to take a 3-1 lead on the suddenly punchless Golden Knights. Joe Pavelski has again showed his clutch playoff form. I’m not convinced that series ends tonight. Vegas has more talent and depth. We’ll see what happens later.

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In Remembrance of fallen heroes

Rangers captain Mark Messier shakes the hand of a FDNY firefighter during an emotionally charged scene before the home opener versus the Sabres at MSG on October 7, 2001.

On the 19th Anniversary of 9/11, I still have this numbing pain in my heart. All these years later, it never changes. It doesn’t go away. Especially if you lived here in the New York/New Jersey or Connecticut area.

At the time, I was on my way to work driving over the Bayonne Bridge when Howard Stern made the startling announcement over the airwaves of 92.3 K-Rock. I didn’t believe it until the smoke stared in front of me to my right from the city. It was all too surreal. I was stunned. Shook to my core.

Back then, I worked at Harborside Financial Center in Jersey City directly across from the World Trade Center. During lunch breaks, I frequently took in those beautiful Twin Towers across the ocean. To have it ripped out due to a heinous terrorist attack that took many innocent lives, was a punch to the gut. It was devastating.

There are families who were shattered into pieces on September 11th, 2001. Many people lost loved ones or friends. I’m fortunate enough to say I didn’t. I just can remember being terrified that hot day when we heard a plane fly over in the parking lot of the 34th Street Bayonne Light Rail. You didn’t feel safe. How could anyone? Those attacks on New York City, Washington DC and Pennsylvania remain etched in our memories.

It was one of the worst days in American history. Yes, I was scared. But just think what so many people who died in those towers felt in their last moments. It’s crazy. I witnessed my favorite building go down in a heap of smoke and rubble. The world ended. It literally stopped. The way we looked at things afterwards would change forever. If you’re old enough, then you know.

The irony is that the New York Rangers were supposed to tour the World Trade Center that day. Imagine if they had. For a long time, life didn’t normally exist. There was no work for over a week. I stayed home and watched wall to wall news coverage. I wanted to find out more about the catastrophic event.

In reflecting about that day an hour ago to commemorate the time of the two plane crashes, I thought about what I was feeling again. I held a moment of silence for all the victims. I also watched some inspiring music videos on YouTube including Jimi Hendrix performing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, plus an Irish marching band playing bagpipes. That felt appropriate. So did Lee Greenwood performing “God Bless The USA”, prior to Game Four of an emotional 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium. Chills.

Even though they didn’t win that year, I have never been so proud of a team. They might have lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Diamondbacks in November of that year. But the way they came back will never be forgotten. Who would’ve thought Mariano Rivera would blow the game? It was truly the end of a great Yankees dynasty.

You know what else I recall? The Rangers and Devils facing off in a preseason game following 9/11. One of the first sporting events to be played at Madison Square Garden. Of course, we attended. I still admit to being nervous and scared that night. I didn’t feel safe. The way the teams lined up for the playing of the anthem was memorable. It was different due to the circumstances. Maybe in that emotional moment I started to heal.

They played an exhibition game. Nothing happened. I couldn’t even tell you who won. Nor do I care. We won just by being there. I didn’t know it at the time. But it was special. You couldn’t stop doing things. If you did, the bad guys win. We can’t live our lives that way. I would express the same thing today about how careful we have to be due to the pandemic. Don’t let it stop you from taking in a nice sunset.

What a strange time it is. Nineteen years have gone by and I wish we were more like we used to be following that horrible tragedy. Nicer to each other. More respectful. Understanding. Unselfish. United. If I can change one thing now, that would be it. There’s too much hate now. It’s unhealthy. We need to be more and do better. No matter who you are and what side you’re on.

At the end of the day, we are all Americans. It’s time to heal again. Even if our leaders and negative media don’t want us to. Things can be better. Treat each other right. Be kind and courteous.

Think of the ultimate sacrifice our firefighters, police and emergency medical workers made during that time. They are the true heroes. It’s time to change our way of thinking. Stay positive. Appreciate each day and every moment with your loved ones and close friends. That is what matters most.

Thank you to those who serve our country. God bless you. God bless the lives lost. May their souls be here in spirit.

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Lightning strikes twice for Islanders

It’s an off day for the Eastern Conference Final that’s being played in the Edmonton bubble. While the Islanders and Lightning get a break, the Western Conference Final continues tonight with Game Three between the Stars and Golden Knights.

That series is tied at one apiece. Having split a pair with both Anton Khudobin and Robin Lehner pitching shutouts, Dallas and Vegas will battle for every square inch of ice. Do the Stars have enough offense to match the Golden Knights? They’ll need more out of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov. You can’t win games 1-0 against the kind of heavy forecheck the Knights bring.

As we set the table for that game, the Islanders find themselves in a predicament they haven’t faced this postseason. They trail the Lightning 2-0 in the best of seven series. As bad as Game One was in which they got humiliated 8-2 with both Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov each going for five points with the Lightning skating circles around them, the way they lost the second game could come back to haunt them.

You can’t play much better than the Islanders did last night. They had it all working early. Matt Martin scored 1:24 in on a Nick Leddy feed. It was his fifth of this NHL Playoffs. Or as many as he had in 55 regular season games. Martin has been one of the best players during this run for Barry Trotz. He plays that hard-nosed, physical, in your face game that works best during the postseason. Ditto for Cal Clutterbuck, who delivered a blow to Tampa by injuring Point in the second period on Wednesday night.

The issue for the Isles is they didn’t capitalize on some huge opportunities. Most notably a five-minute major on Alex Killorn boarding Brock Nelson. He was assessed a game misconduct for the hit from behind. Killorn won’t play in Game Three. The NHL Department of Player Safety suspended him for a game. I probably wouldn’t have. I think they should’ve given Barclay Goodrow a game instead for his dangerous high hit on Nelson later on. That was left alone.

For the Isles, they failed miserably on special teams. They were unable to cash in on the Killorn major penalty. That wasn’t the only chance either. With the game all tied at one and hanging in the balance during a tightly contested third period, a tacky hooking minor on Cedric Paquette handed them a 38 second five-on-three. With both Paquette and Ryan McDonagh in the penalty box instead of helping kill the penalties, Trotz used his timeout to keep the top power play unit out.

However, the three man penalty kill unit that featured Victor Hedman, Zach Bogosian and Anthony Cirelli outworked the Isles power play that featured Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Nelson and Ryan Pulock. After a early Hedman clear on a superb read, Erik Cernak came on. Once McDonagh returned, it was a five-on-four. The Islanders got nothing. That was the game.

After outshooting the Bolts 13-4 in a strong first, they only found themselves tied due to Hedman bombing a point shot off a key Goodrow face-off win at 18:25. The culprit was Devon Toews, who didn’t gain the red line to avoid icing the puck. Those defensive draws can kill you. They came out even in a period they controlled.

Aside from some rough stuff which included Martin fighting Luke Schenn and mixing it up with Pat Maroon, the rest of the game will be played on even terms. Even without Killorn and eventually Point on what looked an accidentally on purpose cheap shot from Clutterbuck (just as much as Goodrow on Nelson in the third), the Lightning didn’t cave. Coach Jon Cooper has gone with a 11 forward, 7 defensemen alignment. That meant he was down to nine forwards. It didn’t matter.

The shots favored the Bolts 17-15 in the second and third. That included 11-8 in the final period. One which seemed destined for overtime. Especially after the Isles failed so badly on the two-man advantage. Neither goalie budged. Andrei Vasilevskiy was locked in finishing with 27 saves. Semyon Varlamov recovered from giving up five in relief of Game One starter Thomas Greiss. He turned aside 19 of 21 in a hard luck loss.

Let’s be honest. It was crushing. For a defensive minded team that prides itself on shutting things down, they blew it. First, Varlamov had to contend with Yanni Gourde on a breakaway that just missed. Then a dangerous rebound. A brutal giveaway from the normally reliable Andy Greene proved costly.

That led directly to a pinching McDonagh threading the needle across the grain to Kucherov, who beat a sprawled Varlamov upstairs with over nine seconds remaining in regulation. His sixth goal of this postseason was particularly damaging.

It put the Islanders in an 0-2 hole. They must win Game Three tomorrow night. They should have an advantage with Killorn and likely Point out. So, the series is far from over. However, they must find more offense against the stingy Vasilevskiy, who’s proving why he’s a Vezina winner. Especially yesterday. Ask the Bruins about it.

Tampa also defends harder than they did a year ago. They play edgier. Ever since they overcame the Blue Jackets to avenge last year’s first round shocker, they’ve been very tough on the opposition. They’re not relying on their talent. They’re getting the jersey dirty and pulling out close games like last night.

This is an uphill climb for the Isles. Not impossible. But it’ll still be tough. We’ll see what they’re made of on Saturday.

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Lafreniere will be nice, but Rangers must address center situation and improve depth

As this strange summer has gone on with the Conference Finals finally beginning during Labor Day Weekend, one thing stands out. In order to have success, you need the horses to go far. Also a bit of luck. Just ask the Avalanche, who couldn’t overcome their key injuries in a closely fought second round that went the Stars way in sudden death.

The expanded format has definitely boosted the Islanders. Prior to the season pause on March 12, they found themselves winless in seven and out of the playoffs. However, the pandemic allowed them to recover. If anybody benefited from the four month hiatus the most, it’s the Rangers’ bitter rival who finds itself in its first Eastern Conference Final since ’93. They’ll get underway versus the Lightning later tonight in Edmonton.

While it’s true the grinding defensive style of Barry Trotz’ club has worn down the Panthers, Capitals and Flyers, it’s been their center depth that has been a big reason for why they’re here. Trotz is able to confidently roll four lines and play all three defensive pairs without any issues. He also can count on either goalie.

In reassessing the trade deadline moves GM Lou Lamoriello made, by adding Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene to a good core that features Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, Anders Lee, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey, Devon Toews, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech, the Hall of Fame executive supplied them with enough depth to make a run. Throw in Jordan Eberle, Derick Brassard, Leo Komarov, Nick Leddy and grinders Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck and they are very deep.

It’s been a total team effort for the Islanders, who boast five double digit scorers led by playmaker Bailey with 17 points (2-15-17). Nelson, Lee and Pageau are tied for the team lead with seven goals. Barzal, who has 13 points (5-8-13), has been dangerous with Lee and Eberle. Even Brassard has rediscovered what made him Big Game Brass by tallying four points in the last three games versus the Flyers.

How does that relate to the Rangers, who have a huge off-season ahead? They made strides this past season thanks to the brilliance of Artemi Panarin and dramatic improvement of Mika Zibanejad. Ryan Strome had a career year and will want more money as a restricted free agent. So will Tony DeAngelo. Chris Kreider got his new contract.

There also will be decisions on unrestricted free agent Jesper Fast along with Group II FA’s Alex Georgiev and Brendan Lemieux. The former likely staying put with Henrik Lundqvist probably done. Whether it’s a buyout or retirement to possibly go home, we don’t know. Who knows? Maybe he would consider signing for a year with a contender if he’s available.

Whatever John Davidson and Jeff Gorton decide, they know they’ll need to change the roster. Something Gorton hinted at following a quick exit from the preliminary round in which Carolina dominated them in three games. Why were they so easy to play against? The answer can be found in their style and regarding a lack of scoring depth.

The defense struggled mightily against the Hurricanes. The recent hire of former Pens assistant Jacques Martin should help. A defensive minded coach with lots of experience including as the former bench boss of the Senators, he can guide the D in the right direction.

However, new Devils coach Lindy Ruff took unfair blame for a revamped blueline that featured newcomers Ryan Lindgren, Adam Fox and long-term investment Jacob Trouba. Brady Skjei wound up on the Canes once the organization decided to keep Kreider. Trouba can’t go another year through multiple partners. Brendan Smith isn’t the right fit. Marc Staal will likely play out his final year. Whether it’s with DeAngelo remains to be seen.

In a little over a month, the Blueshirts will make it official and select from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) out of Rimouski Oceanic, left wing Alexis Lafreniere. He’s the reward for winning the second part of the lottery. Even if I never agreed with the process, it’s nice to see the team catch a break. Lafreniere is a future star who makes teammates better. He will light up Broadway.

Here’s the thing. Now that they’re loaded on the wing with Kreider, Lafreniere, Panarin, Pavel Buchnevich, Kaapo Kakko, what will they decide about the center position? You have a legit top pivot in Zibanejad, who blossomed into the first line player they envisioned. He played mostly with Kreider and Buchnevich at even strength while being a power play weapon due to his huge right shot. He, Panarin and DeAngelo were a handful on the top unit with Kreider and Strome.

As productive as Strome was during the season while benefiting from Panarin, is he a number two center? Probably not. A year away from becoming unrestricted, it’s likely they’ll offer him a prove it one-year deal. It would be best for both sides. That would give the team options including making him available for trade if they want to move on.

That could depend on Filip Chytil. Although he shows flashes of his ability, he isn’t a finished product. I still don’t know if his best position is center due to the inability to win face-offs. He tries hard, but isn’t consistent in the middle. There are defensive lapses which is expected from a young player. At some point, he must improve to reward the organization’s faith in the former 21st pick of the 2017 Draft. While Lias Andersson attempts to prove he has a future back home for HV-71, Chytil must perform better. He just celebrated his 21st birthday. It’s time to find out what he is.

The Rangers are weak in the middle because they don’t know yet about Chytil and Brett Howden, who showed improvement during the three-game elimination in the Play In phase, still must prove he’s more than a fourth liner. He can win draws and play penalty kill while bringing a hard work ethic. He looks like more of a center than wing. It’s just that he remains fourth on the depth chart assuming Strome stays.

Last season, Kakko played a lot with Chytil on the third line. He wasn’t ready for the top six due to a variety of factors. That included his skating, hockey sense and conditioning. He showed signs in the reboot of looking more confident. But didn’t produce. The language barrier and him being a diabetic are other factors. He remains a young prospect with a high ceiling. We’ll see what Year Two brings.

For too much of ’19-20, David Quinn relied mostly on the top six which included two-way forward Fast, who they can bring back for a reasonable contract. I would do say three years at around $3.25 million AAV. He might want four and $3.5 million. Considering where they are in the rebuild, I feel he’s still a key player who can help the younger players. You can do a lot worse than having Fast start on your third line. In a perfect world, he’d eventually play with Howden and Lemieux on a checking line.

Improving the team depth is vital to success. If they can’t, they probably aren’t a playoff team in 2020-21. Would they consider moving a Buchnevich and/or Chytil with say that Carolina first for a two-way center that can fill the void on the second line? It’s only a suggestion.

The team believes they would be better off sticking with the long-term plan. If that’s true, then I don’t expect the postseason. There’s too many good teams to jump over. They’d have to take a quantum leap to do it. I still view them as a team in transition capable of 85 points. In the East, you have to hit about 95 to qualify. Especially inside the division, which could see a dip from both the Caps and Pens. But they’re still loaded compared to the Rangers.

What happens if the Islanders win? That’s hard to say. I can’t imagine it. Beating flawed opponents like the Caps and Flyers is one thing. It’s quite another if they can get through the Lightning, who even without Steven Stamkos, look like the team to beat. We’ll see what the Game One status is for Nikita Kucherov. They still boast Brayden Point, whose identity they seem to take on. Plus Victor Hedman patrolling the blueline and Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. They’re a lot grittier than the team that rolled over to the Blue Jackets last year.

In terms of the Rangers, finding a way to be more competitive means improving lines three and four while creating more depth at the back end. If that means Libor Hajek can finally stick, so be it. They are still waiting on K’Andre Miller, who enters his first professional year. Unless he surprises everyone in training camp this winter, there’s no reason to rush him. Let him properly develop. That’s why Nils Lundkvist is playing overseas again. There isn’t a spot available for him. The restart of NHL ’21 won’t be until around Christmas.

That also is why Vitali Kravtsov is playing for Chelyabinsk Traktor of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). It should be better for his development. We won’t see him until possibly after the season in Russia finishes next March. Ditto for Lauri Pajunemi, who put himself on the radar last year in Finland.

If there’s one young player who could debut next season, it’s Morgan Barron. A sixth round pick in 2017, he performed admirably in three years at Cornell University. He turns 22 this December 2. I would expect him to start at Hartford.

The team will be limited in what they can do in large part to the flat salary cap holding at $81.5 million. Teams will have to get creative. That’s why I believe if both Fast and DeAngelo want to stay along with Strome, they’ll take less. It’s also why there could be a trade.

If Davidson and Gorton can improve team depth, that would be ideal. As the Isles have shown along with the very deep Golden Knights, it goes a long way.

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