The New York Islanders’ bubble has burst — and it was an agonizing pop.
Anthony Cirelli’s redirected shot 13:18 into overtime off a pass from behind the net by Barclay Goodrow rang off the post, skittered across the goal line, hit the left pad of the unknowing goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, and slid over the line to send the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final, eliminating the Islanders in six games with a 2-1 result and ending their season.
“You don’t always do it your first crack at it, that’s why you have to go back and climb that mountain top,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “You could see the mountaintop, we just couldn’t get to the mountaintop.”
The underdog Islanders still managed to get within two wins of making their first Stanley Cup Final during their first appearance in the conference final since 1993.
“It’s a special group in that room and til that very last minute, every single one of us believed in each other and what we were doing and the road we were on,” captain Anders Lee said. “Obviously we came up short, but there’s a huge sense of pride right now in every single one of those guys in our room and everyone involved.”
Such a fluky goal was a cruel way for the Islanders to get the boot from the Edmonton bubble and for Varlamov to be saddled with the loss. The veteran netminder who had to wait so long for another shot at postseason was the reason why the Islanders stayed in the series for six games — especially on Thursday night.
Varlamov turned away 46 of 48 shots, a career-high for the 32-year-old while the defense in front of them lost arguably their No. 1 blueliner in Adam Pelech, who broke his wrist in Game 5.
In stepped 20-year-old Noah Dobson, who admirably made his postseason debut by helping the Islanders’ defense stay organized.
“We always play with the next man up mentality,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “Noah stepped in and showed what he could do… We’re deep, we have guys that can play. It was tough to lose Adam but Noah stepped in well.”
It was the Islanders who once again took the initial lead on just their second shot of the night when Devon Toews wrapped around the opener into an open net with Andrei Vasilevskiy out of position.
Anders Lee — who provided the helper on Jordan Eberle’s double-overtime game-winner in Game 5 — patiently worked around the Lightning zone before lofting a pass that took a fortuitous bounce to the streaking Toews at the left post. The blueliner then circled around the net with Vasilveskiy scrambling to stuff it home.
Just 2:13 later, though, the Lightning found an equalizer. Varlamov allowed a juicy rebound off a harmless wrist shot from straightaway by Erik Chernak, which was pounced on by Victor Hedman. The Lightning defenseman wristed home his ninth goal of the postseason as Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield was caught watching — tying Bobby Orr and Brad Park for the third-most goals scored in a single postseason by a blueliner.
It was the only blemish of Varlamov’s busy first period as the Islanders were outshot by Tampa Bay 17-6.
While he didn’t see as many shots in the second, he was still just as busy, turning away all 10 in the frame with many of them coming in spectacular fashion.
It included a stretch of two-straight Lightning power plays that saw the Islanders’ netminder come up with multiple miraculous saves to keep things even going into the third.
“He gave us a chance tonight,” Trotz said. “Without him in the first 30 minutes, I think there would’ve been some separation between the two clubs. He allowed us to hang in there.”
The Islanders upped their offensive pressure and managed to dictate a majority of the play in the final frame, but Vasilevskiy — like Varlamov — stood tall when sporadically called upon.
Andy Greene provided the deja vu from Game 5 when Anthony Beauvillier was called for a double-minor on a high-stick on Mikhail Sergachev. In Game 6, the veteran blueliner committed a double-minor high-sticking penalty on Nikita Kucherov with 23 seconds left in regulation, which the Islanders were able to kill to finish regulation and start overtime.
“This team is just one of the most resilient teams I’ve ever coached and I’ve coached for a long time,” Trotz said. “I’m real proud of what they’ve done.”
During that kill, Brock Nelson had a golden opportunity to force a Game 7 when he forced a turnover in the neutral zone and came in alone on Vasilevskiy, but his wrister blocker side was turned away.
“Any time Brock has the puck on his stick, I think he’s going to score,” Lee said. “He was a monster all playoff… Vasilevskiy made a great save. Just going to come back and get the next one, that’s what we were thinking.”