Two early goals in the third period following a penalty by goaltender Semyon Varlamov for playing the puck outside the designated area relegated the Islanders to a 3-2 loss in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup Qualifiers series on Wednesday to the Florida Panthers.
The Islanders still hold a 2-games-to-1 lead in the best-of-five series and remain one win away from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Loose Islanders play — which is unlike their usually composed ways — saw the Panthers capitalize on two of five power-play opportunities, including Varlamov’s penalty. It was something New York wanted to avoid heading into the series.
“You knew they were going to come with their absolute best effort,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “Unfortunately, a puck bounced on Varly… and we weren’t able to kill the penalty. That’s on us.”
It proved to be a major difference Wednesday afternoon, especially when the Islanders mounted a comeback in the final minutes when Brock Nelson’s centering pass ricocheted off the skate of Aaron Ekblad and into the back of Sergei Bobrovsky’s goal with 1:27 to go to make it a one-goal game.
It was a rare blemish for Bobrovsky, who had to come up big to ensure Florida’s season stayed alive for at least another day.
He was keen on a couple of Islanders’ chances in the first period. First smothering a 2-on-1 break featuring Tom Kuhnhackl and JG Pageau before making an arm save on a Jordan Eberle backhander after he was sprung on a breakaway by a home-run pass from Andy Greene.
It was a key save for Florida after Eberle scored two in the Islanders’ Game 2 win.
“I think it’s what we weren’t able to accomplish [that did us in],” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought our 5-on-5 game was fine. We had a number of chances… we just didn’t bury them.”
The Panthers got on the board first for a second-straight game, taking advantage of an uncharacteristic too-many-men penalty from the Islanders.
On the man-advantage, a barrage of Panthers pressure resulted in a Varlamov save leaving a big rebound for Evgenii Dadonov to get on. He sent a pass to the left post where Erik Haula was wide-open with an open net in front of him for a quick wrister and a Florida lead 4:02 into the second period.
“Obviously we didn’t execute our gameplan and discipline was in our gameplan,” Pageau said.
The Islanders turned up their offensive pressure in search of an immediate equalizer and they came close twice, but Ryan Pulock and Josh Bailey could only hit the post on shots that beat Bobrovsky midway through the frame.
Pageau — who scored in Game 1 — got the Islanders on the board with 3:34 left in the period, but the credit is owed to Anthony Beauvillier.
While the Islanders were changing, the young winger broke out of his zone, dumped the puck in the Panthers’ zone from center-ice, won the race to the puck, and wove around the net to hit the on-rushing Pageau near the right circle where he one-timed the pass through Bobrovsky.
It was one of just four shots from the Islanders in the second.
Just four seconds into the third, Varlamov illegally played the puck outside the goalie trapezoid to put the Islanders down a man. They were made to pay as Mike Hoffman rifled a shot home from the right circle 37 seconds later to put the Panthers in front.
“I made a mistake on that play. Should’ve handled the puck better,” Varlamov said. “It cost us a goal.”
Two minutes later, the Panthers’ lead was doubled when a turnover in the Islanders’ zone gifted Brian Boyle with open space in front of Varlamov where his wrister beat the New York goalie short side.
“We were playing east-to-west… in playoff hockey, you have to play north. We were playing slow east-west hockey,” Trotz said. “When you do that you turn it over.”
“A lot of the stuff they got, it was from us. It’s stuff we can control.”
They’ll have a day off to right those wrongs before Game 4, which will take place on Friday.
“It’s unfortunate, but we were in a good position and we’re still in a good position,” Pageau said. “Now, we just have to focus again. We knew they were going to come out and play hard and now we’ll have to play with some urgency next game.”