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.