For over two decades, Islanders fans waited for this moment. That it came from the captain was fitting. In 2009, John Tavares was selected first overall by the franchise. They needed a superstar player who could bring them back to the glory days. It took a while. But in his seventh year, Tavares scored the tying and overtime winner to send the Isles to the second round for the first time since 1993.
On a night in which another former number one pick of the franchise, Roberto Luongo was brilliant making 49 saves, the Islanders needed to pull brilliant goalie Thomas Greiss for an extra attacker to get the game tied. On a brilliant rush by defenseman Nick Leddy, he set up Nikolay Kulemin for a shot that Luongo looked to have covered. But the puck wasn’t and Tavares scored the tying goal with 54 seconds left in regulation to end Luongo’s shutout bid. He shut them out in Game 4.
With Barclays Center going crazy, it would be the third game of the first round series against the Panthers that would need sudden death to decide a winner. Luck had been on their side. The Isles prevailed in the previous two on winners from Thomas Hickey in Game 3 and unsung hero Alan Quine in Game 5. This one would go the distance.
For a second straight game, the Panthers and Islanders needed double overtime. For the Isles, they certainly had their chances in the first extra session. They out-shot the Panthers 15-8. The difference was the brilliant goaltending of Luongo, who saved his best for last. He really deserved a shutout. But he couldn’t control the rebound of that Kulemin point blank try that resulted in Tavares’ fourth of the series at 19:06 of the third period.
After looking tentative in the first OT, the Panthers came out more aggressive. Looking to end it and send the series back to Florida for a deciding Game 7, they nearly ended it in the first couple of minutes. Ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, who was stifled by Greiss in the first OT, nearly set up the winner with Jonathan Huberdeau having a great chance thwarted. Reilly Smith hit the crossbar. Florida made a good push in the first half of the second overtime but were unable to get that second one past Greiss, who finished with 41 saves.
In what turned out to be the best series of the opening round, the teams battled until Tavares made a great play to finally get his team over a 23-year hump. On a fore-check from Quine and Okposo, he took one low shot that forced Luongo to make a difficult stop. The rebound caromed out to Tavares, who had the presence of mind to carry the puck behind the net, spin off Aaron Ekblad and in one motion score a backhand wraparound goal for the emotional series clincher at 90:41 of sudden death.
It sent Barclays Center into pandemonium. Jubilant Islanders poured off the bench to congratulate their captain on just a brilliant play by a very skilled star player, who wouldn’t be denied. Like his team, he had suffered first round disappointments before against Pittsburgh and Washington. This time, the 25-year old from Mississauga, Ontario who stardom was predicted for wouldn’t be denied. He was the hero on a memorable night in downtown Brooklyn with his game-winner giving the Islanders a hard fought first round win over the Panthers.
Now, it’s onto Round Two where a battle tested Lightning await in Tampa, Florida. So, the Islanders’ path remains similar. They’ll again face a team from the Sunshine State. In the more experienced Lightning, who disposed of the Red Wings in five despite no Steven Stamkos or Anton Stralman, it should be an even tougher test. The Bolts went all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Blackhawks. They still are quite formidable thanks to star defenseman Victor Hedman, goalie Ben Bishop and proven playoff scorers Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn.
For now, the Islanders will enjoy their first playoff win since ’93. That year, a underdog team guided by all-time great Hall Of Famer Al Arbour made it all the way to the Wales Conference Final before falling to eventual champ Montreal in five games. It’s fitting that in a season where they honored Arbour, who passed away last summer, that they’re finally back in the second round.
It almost had to wait two days. Credit the Panthers for playing a very good Game 6 for nearly a full 60 minutes. They minimized the Islanders’ chances. The only goal came off the stick of Huberdeau, who pulled off a slick move and sweet finish to beat Greiss with 1:02 left in the first period. His first of the series came from Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen.
Luongo really stood tall in the second and third periods. He was really on turning aside all 10 Islander shots in the second to preserve a one-goal lead entering the final stanza. In particular, his rebound control was excellent. He made the saves and didn’t allow the bad rebounds that had plagued him earlier in the series.
In the third, the Isles kept up the pressure. In search of the equalizer, Luongo kept them off the scoreboard for most of the period. It’s also worth noting that Greiss did a great job stifling the Panthers on 13 shots to give his team a chance to tie it.
That would prove crucial. With coach Jack Capuano finally getting Greiss to the bench for an extra attacker, the Isles found a way to force OT. On what was just a great rush by a determined Leddy, he carried the puck end to end before sending a backhand in front for Kulemin, who got off a tough low shot. For a moment, it looked like Luongo had it. But before you blinked, there was Tavares depositing the loose puck into an open net for the game-tying goal at 19:06 of the third.
The sellout crowd of 15,795 who had screamed all night for something positive to happen finally had their moment to go wild. As a smiling Tavares was greeted by pleased teammates at the bench, the enthusiastic Islander crowd chanted, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” They weren’t going home disappointed. There would be another overtime.
The Isles really dictated the first OT in shots and chances. But despite a 15-8 edge, they couldn’t beat Luongo. That’s how good he was. He really played great and probably deserved a better fate. How many more chances will the proud 37-year old veteran get? He certainly had a solid series finishing with a 2.05 goals-against-average and .934 save percentage. But it wasn’t to be against the franchise that took him in the first round fourth overall in the ’97 Draft.
It was then GM Mike Milbury who mistakenly traded him to Florida in the 2000 NHL Draft with Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. He gambled on Rick DiPietro first overall but injuries and a long-term contract killed a promising career. Ironically, he now is a radio star hosting a show on ESPN Radio and an Islanders TV analyst between periods on MSG-Plus.
After a strong start by the Panthers to extend the series in the second OT, it was Tavares who made the defining play of his career. On a nice set up from Okposo, he got to his own rebound and circled around the net to beat Luongo for a backhand stuff in at 10:41 of the second overtime (90:41). It was his team-leading fifth of the series. The franchise center led all scorers with nine points (5-4-9) in the Isles’ first round win. Smith, who torched the Isles early, paced the Panthers with eight points (4-4-8). They all came in the first three games. He was shut out the final three.
As for Jagr, the 44-year old legendary future Hall of Famer still couldn’t find the back of the net. Despite having some good chances and moments, he finished with two assists. It just wasn’t to be for number 68, who has now gone 37 straight playoff games without a goal. After leading the Panthers in scoring with a jaw dropping 66 points in the regular season, Jagr will likely continue. He’s still a very effective player on the fore-check. His effort in both ends was exceptional. It’s astonishing that the fifth overall pick in the famed ’90 Draft is still playing at a high level. Hopefully, he’ll return for another year with a good Panthers team with a bright future.
This moment is about the Islanders and their captain. Tavares has never been past the first round. In their biggest game with a chance to clinch, he delivered. Now, one of the game’s brightest stars gets a bigger stage in a Conference Semifinal match-up against a well coached Tampa club, who knows what it takes this time of year. It pits the pesky Jon Cooper against Capuano, who also got over the hump with a much needed first round triumph.
It’s also about a 30-year old career backup in Greiss, who starred in a starting role by winning his first playoff series with a 1.79 GAA and .944 save percentage. Remarkable stuff from the German goalie who was signed by general manager Garth Snow as insurance for Jaroslav Halak. Instead, he became pretty valuable winning 23 games during the season and taking over with Halak out with a groin injury.
The Islanders now advance to the second round. They’ll wait for the first round to conclude. We already know the match-ups in the East. A Caps’ hard fought 1-0 shutout win in Game 6 finally dismissed the pesky Flyers earlier on Sunday. Washington will meet the Pens for the first time since ’09, pitting Alex Ovechkin vs Sidney Crosby for the second time. The Isles will start against the Bolts either on Thursday or Saturday in Tampa.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Thomas Greiss, Islanders (41 saves incl. 25/25 in 2nd and 3rd to give team a chance)
2nd Star-Roberto Luongo, Panthers (49 saves incl. 15/15 in 1st OT-tremendous in losing effort)
1st Star-John Tavares, NY Islanders (2 goals-4, 5, tying goal at 19:06 of 3rd, scored at 90:41 of sudden death to send team to second round for first time since ’93)
Notes: The final three games of the series all resulted in 2-1 scores. That’s how close it was between the evenly matched teams, who gave a great show. Total goals in series: Islanders-15 Panthers-14 … Shot attempts favored the Isles 99-84. … The teams combined for 41 blocked shots and 49 missed shots. … Islanders won the face-off battle 52-44 led by who else but Tavares (18-and-13). Derek MacKenzie paced the Panthers going 12-and-6. … Islanders did it mostly with 11 forwards due to an injury that caused Josh Bailey (4:24-7 shifts) to leave during the first. … Ryan Strome was a healthy scratch for a second game in a row. Steve Bernier skated in his place logging 28 shifts (16:03).
Isles-Nick Leddy (39:12), Travis Hamonic (39:06), John Tavares (34:49) and Kyle Okposo (34:23)
Panthers-Erik Gudbranson (34:56), Aleksander Barkov (34:50), Brian Campbell (33:08) and Jonathan Huberdeau (32:43)