First-liners show signs of life as Islanders keep season afloat

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Lightning
New York Islanders celebrate the game winning goal scored by right wing Jordan Eberle (7) against the Tampa Bay Lightning following the second overtime period in game five of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Barry Trotz smirked as he took the podium and prepared for his regularly-scheduled postgame Zoom press conference.

“We’re alive,” he affirmed.

His New York Islanders just squeezed out a 2-1 double-overtime victory to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, ensuring that they’ll play at least another day while cutting their series deficit to 3-2.

The anxiety-inducing, yet overall gutsy effort to keep their season alive at least one more game was sparked — outside of the stalwart goaltending from Semyon Varlamov — by an Islanders first line that had been starving for production.

Jordan Eberle scored the game-winner in double overtime off an odd-man rush created by Anders Lee — both of whom had been without a point for three-straight games. It was a whiffed shot by Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk that presented the opportunity for Lee to spark the transition game, chipping the loose puck past the blueliner to himself and bounding down the left wing with Eberle on his right.

A simple pass across the ice as Mikhail Sergachev slid to block the lane found Eberle, who one-timed it home for the victory.

The goal was just his second in his last 15 games dating back to the first round of the playoffs against the Washington Capitals — and a much-needed prize for the work he’s done all postseason long despite lacking that scoring touch.

“He has a pretty high level of expectation that he puts on himself,” Trotz said. “We have a couple players who enjoy those moments and he seems to be one of them.”

While Eberle described the goal as “the biggest one in a long time,” it was the play of Lee that embodied the Islanders’ resiliency and capped off a night that further solidified why he’s their captain.

The 30-year-old winger was relentless in his efforts in Game 5. The big-bodied winger helped string together some of the Islanders’ best offensive possessions in Tampa’s zone despite chances being at a premium.

He also selflessly gave up his stick to defenseman Scott Mayfield in the third period after the blue liner broke his stick, only to resolutely man the points and come up with a key block off a shot by Zack Bogosian with less than five minutes left in regulation.

“He’s our leader for a reason,” Eberle said after the game. “He’s a big body and a lot of times you see him battling down low and taking on 1,2,3 guys and winning battles.”

“That’s the stuff you expect to see from him… he doesn’t get enough credit for the passion that he plays with and the work ethic.”

Trotz echoed those sentiments, lauding his captain for such an effort in an elimination game.

“You start with the captain, Anders Lee. A good example is when [Scott Mayfield] lost his stick he gave it to our defenseman,” Trotz said. “He had that long shift, he’s blocking shots, he’s all in, he was exhausted, and he still found a way.”

Barzal got back on the scoresheet as well, though he wasn’t a part of the game-winner. He picked up a secondary assist on Ryan Pulock’s first-period power-play goal, which was an important special-teams tally for a sputtering man-advantage unit.

“Barzy was in a really good place. I thought he was managing the puck, he was skating, he had good energy,” Trotz said. “I think he understands that it’s not what you get, it’s what you leave and I thought his game had a lot of substance.”

A lot more substance will be needed if the Islanders want to pull off the improbable comeback. Game 6 begins Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET (NBC Sports).