They were on the verge of saying goodbye to America before they could properly introduce themselves.
But on this Friday night under the Edmonton bubble and in front of the national audience that obviously had not been especially impressed by the team’s close-up in Games 1 or 2 of the Eastern finals, the Islanders said hello.
It was 5-3 in this one on Brock Nelson’s go-ahead goal at 16:35 of the third period and Jean-Gabriel’s empty-netter in the waning moments after the Lightning had struck twice earlier to tie on goals by Ondrej Palat’s tip at 2:32 and Tyler Johnson’s mid-air deflection at 12:04. Gabriel was hit repeatedly by Nikita Kucherov on the empty-netter, sparking fisticuffs after the goal.
The resilient performance thus sends the Islanders into Sunday afternoon’s Game 4 with a chance to tie the series, and if the victory was achieved against a team with a depleted top of the forwards depth chart, well, that’s hockey.
Just like it was hockey in 2015 when the Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup final with a seven-game Eastern finals victory over the Rangers, who went without Mats Zuccarello for the entire round and had defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi essentially playing on one leg apiece.
True, first-line center Brayden Point was out with an undisclosed injury and top-six winger Alex Killorn was serving a one-game suspension. But Nikita Kucherov is coming off a 2018-19 Hart Trophy and Victor Hedman is a Norris Trophy finalist for the fourth straight year while having won the award in 2017-18.
So, yes, the Lightning did indeed dress a couple of difference-makers in addition to having 2019 Vezina-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, a finalist again this season, in nets for this one,
The Islanders made a couple of changes, as well. With Casey Cizikas sidelined due to an unspecified physical issue, Pageau slipped into No. 53’s role between Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Different center, but the same identity. Derick Brassard, scratched for Game 2, and Micheal Del Colle, who hadn’t played since the series against the Flyers, were reinserted in place of Cizikas and healthy scratch Andrew Ladd.
This is the time of year where the adage about practice making perfect is tossed into the dust bin by NHL coaches. This is the time of year when rest and recuperation take priority over getting onto the ice in order to work on technical systems adjustments.
That is why, for example, the Islanders have not practiced or taken a morning skate since arriving in Edmonton last Sunday, a day before Game 1 of the conference finals against the Lightning.
“It was a lot so we’ve been chasing, I’ll say, the energy and all that,” Trotz said, pointing to the team’s workload through three rounds that included the seven-game series against the Flyers. At this point in time you’ve got guys who are marked up, guys who are battling through stuff. The games are all that matter right now. There’s not a lot we can work on systematically that would be the difference for us.”
The Islanders displayed more than their quotient of energy during an up-tempo, attack-oriented first period in which they sent 16 shots on Vasilevskiy and went into the first intermission tied at 1-1 after probably earning a better fate.
Clutterbuck got the Islanders on the board at 12:58, beating Vasilevskiy from the inner edge of the left circle after collecting a loose puck while the goaltender was bothered by an undone strap on his right pad. Ryan Pulock’s shot from the right ricocheted to Clutterbuck after hitting a body in front before No. 15 drilled it home, low to the short side.
Trotz had talked about how the Islanders would need to make it more difficult for Vasilevskiy and they did, creating traffic in front more consistently than they had in either of the first two contests. But it was Vasilevskiy who continued to make it difficult for the Islanders when he got that same right pad down on Mathew Barzal’s breakaway backhand try with 5:25 remaining in the period.
The Islanders had not led after any of the first six periods of the series. They did not lead after the first period of this one, either, not after Mikhail Sergachev sneaked in low and put one up high past Semyon Varlamov to even the score 1-1 at 16:31.
But that dynamic changes in a second period in which the Islanders carried the play and indeed came away with the lead after 40 minutes. Denied on a couple of golden chances early in the period, it seemed to be going against the suburbanites when they failed on another power play opportunity midway through the second. When that man-advantage ended, the Islanders had gone 1-for-10 in 22:06 on the PP for the series.
But this time, the Islanders elevated following the kill. It was Adam Pelech, darting in from the left point to convert Pageau’s brilliant lateral (off a nifty feed from Barzal) with a rising wrist shot from the left circle for a 2-1 lead at 11:50.
Then, two minutes later, Beauvillier scored from in front at 13:50 when Nelson circled the net and found his winger alone after coverage confusion between Kevin Shattenkirk and McDonagh.
And the Islanders, with strong support from Varlamov, were up by two heading into the third.