When it comes to playoff overtime, everyone needs a hero. No matter whose side you’re on, one player will play the role everyone wants to. For the Islanders in their first ever playoff game in Brooklyn, it was an unlikely hero in defenseman Thomas Hickey who scored at 12:31 of overtime to lift the Islanders to an exciting 4-3 win over the Panthers in Game 3 before a thunderous capacity crowd of 15,795 at Barclays Center.
On a roster that features captain John Tavares along with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, it was the 27-year old unheralded veteran who was the hero. Hickey scored his first career postseason goal off a great feed from Brock Nelson from behind the net, giving the Islanders a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven first round series.
After the evenly matched teams split the first two in Florida, Brooklyn finally had their chance to host playoff hockey in the Isles’ first season on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. Even with the crowd ready and the anticipation building with a special two-hour pregame show broadcast on WFAN leading into a rare radio cast on the popular radio station, the Islanders came out flat.
They fell behind right away on Reilly Smith’s fourth goal coming just 2:25 into the first period. The former Bruins’ forward who the Panthers acquired last summer for Jimmy Hayes has lit it up in this series. The Isles have had no answer for him. Smith continued his torrid play by scoring and setting up the other two Florida goals. He leads all players with seven points in the series.
For a large portion of the first, the Panthers were much better. Their speed caused the Islanders’ defense problems in their end. Florida controlled the possession generating quality chances while out-shooting the Isles 12-8. It could’ve been worse but after scoring his fourth on a neat backhand rebound past Thomas Greiss, Smith sent a backhand off the goalpost. While Greiss kept it a one-goal deficit, Roberto Luongo was sharp early following up a 41-save Game 2 performance with eight more stops.
There weren’t many soldiers in the opening 20 minutes on the Brooklyn side. Outside Tavares, who was dangerous every shift, it wasn’t the kind of start they wanted. It got even more troublesome when Aleksander Barkov scored his first career postseason goal only 1:11 into the second from Smith and Jonathan Huberdeau. A good fore-check by Huberdeau set up Smith in the slot but his shot went over the net and took a good carom off the back boards right to Barkov for an easy finish.
Trailing by two, the Islanders needed something to happen. They got a huge break when Aaron Ekblad’s goal was reversed. Smith passed for an open Ekblad, who wired a shot past Greiss that would’ve made it 3-0 only four minutes into the second. Playing a hunch, Islanders’ coach Jack Capuano challenged that the play was offside. MSG’s second camera angle at the blue line was conclusive enough to reverse the call on the ice. The Florida player didn’t have full possession of the puck when they crossed the blue line.
It was the turning point. Suddenly, the sellout crowd at Barclays Center got back into it. Feeding off the energy, the Islanders had a good shift drawing a boarding minor on Alex Petrovic at 4:43. Twenty-five seconds later, Jussi Jokinen went off for tripping which handed the Isles a two-man advantage for 1:36. It took all of 13 seconds for Ryan Pulock to blast a perfect Kyle Okposo cross ice feed past Luongo for his first of the postseason. It was a set play with Tavares winning the puck back to Okposo, who nicely dished across for a wicked Pulock one-timer that cut it to 2-1 at 5:21.
But with the crowd buzzing, the Panthers were able to kill the rest of Jokinen’s penalty. Smith then made another great play setting up Nick Bjugstad to restore a two-goal lead at 7:23. Dmitry Kulikov forced Hickey into a turnover in the neutral zone. Kulikov’s outlet for Smith allowed the speedy forward to skate around a tired Pulock, who was caught at the end of his shift. Smith was stopped pointblank by Greiss but Bjugstad followed up on the rebound silencing the crowd momentarily.
Somebody else had to step up. For the Isles, it turned out to be the third line. First, it was deadline pickup Shane Prince, who converted off a pretty feed from Pulock to cut the deficit to one with 8:12 left in the period. Calvin de Haan started it with a pass for Pulock, who cut in and found Prince wide open for his first career playoff goal.
A clipping minor that sent Kulikov to the penalty box with 3:48 left allowed the Islanders to get even. In transition, Tavares took an Okposo feed and passed for a cutting Frans Nielsen, whose low backhand sneaked past a surprised Luongo to tie the score with 3:05 remaining. The crowd went nuts.
Somewhat predictably, the third was played more tightly. Both teams didn’t want to make a mistake that led to the winning goal. Each played better defensively. Following a second in which they combined for 28 shots with the Isles holding a 16-12 advantage, shots were dead even at seven apiece due to tighter checking. The refs only called one penalty- a hi-sticking minor on Travis Hamonic- that the Isles killed off without a problem.
Almost as if it were fate, the first ever playoff game in Brooklyn went to sudden death. What better way to find out who would prevail. It was fairly even. After a good push by the Islanders at the start forcing Luongo into some tough stops, the Panthers clawed back with some chances of their own. But Greiss stood tall. Each goalie faced eight shots. But it was the Isles’ final shot that made the ultimate difference.
On a sustained fore-check behind the net, Josh Bailey won a puck to Nelson who skated away from a Petrovic check. He then made a perfect backhand centering feed for a cutting Hickey, who beat 44-year old Jaromir Jagr in front. Hickey didn’t miss sending a perfect one-timer past Luongo to send teammates and the building into bedlam.
It was well earned by the Islanders. They battled back from a pair of two-goal deficits to win Game 3 and take a 2-1 series lead. They showed grit and determination. That perseverance paid off. Still, you wonder how different it might have been if not for the successful coach’s challenge that negated Ekblad’s goal. Technology served its purpose.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-John Tavares, Islanders (2 assists including primary on Nielsen tying goal, 5 SOG, 10 attempts, led team in 27 shifts-23:16)
2nd Star-Ryan Pulock, Islanders (goal-1st of postseason, primary assist on Prince goal, 3 attempts, 2 blocked shots in 26 shifts-16:14)
1st Star-Reilly Smith, Panthers (goal-4th of series, 2 assists, 5 SOG in 9 attempts, +3 in 31 shifts-23:48)
Notes: Shots were dead even 39-39. That’s how close these teams are. Total attempts favored the Panthers 73-66. … Barkov led everyone with nine shots followed by Huberdeau’s seven. In particular, Huberdeau was dangerous in overtime. … Jagr hasn’t scored a goal in 34 straight playoff games. He only had one shot and was victimized on Hickey’s winner. … Neither team was perfect. They combined for 41 giveaways including 24 from the Isles including Hickey’s turnover that led to Bjugstad’s goal. He atoned for it with the OT winner. … Isles led in hits 48-40 with Okposo, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck each recording six. Garrett Wilson had seven in nine shifts for Florida. … Isles were 40-and-31 on face-offs led by Tavares, who went 14-and-11. Casey Cizikas had a strong game finishing 8-and-5. Bjugstad went 13-and-10 for the Panthers. … Afterwards, Luongo indicated that he was tired and needed to rest the next two days. … Florida could be getting key scorer Vincent Trocheck back for Game 4. … After having to play the first three games over four days, each team gets a much needed break with two days off before they resume for Game 4 on Wednesday. Got to love the schedule makers.