For the second consecutive season, the New York Islanders will be playing in the Stanley Cup semifinals after defeating the Boston Bruins 6-2 in Game 6 to win the Eastern Division and set up a rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
And they did so in front of one of the rowdiest versions of Nassau Coliseum you’ll ever see.
Brock Nelson continues to be the big man for the big occasion, recording a pair of goals to help spark the Islanders’ offensive effort, which was yet again backstopped by the steady brilliance of goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who stopped 23 of 25 shots to help see out the Bruins.
“It was awesome. The place was rocking tonight,” Nelson said. “The fans were feeding us energy. The team played great. It was one of those nights you’ll always remember moments like that.
“Big game, big team effort. It just feels good having a full Coliseum behind you and playing for them.”
It was only the second most important thing that happened to Nelson this week, as head coach Barry Trotz revealed why he was able to come up so big on Wednesday night.
“People don’t know Brock just had a child the other day, him and his wife. So he’s been dealing with that,” Trotz said. “He played Game 4 — before Game 4 — his wife had a baby at 12:30 in the afternoon and he played that night with no sleep. He said I’m in the lineup and has been battling through that. He came to Boston, spent some time, got him late into Boston, played that game.
“Today you saw him fresh and happy to have a new child with his wife and having his wife home. I think he settled in and played a Brock Nelson game.”
It was another second-period outburst that put the Islanders over the top, scoring three goals to take a commanding 4-1 lead into the final frame. Nelson recorded the first two to set a raucous Coliseum into bedlam before Kyle Palmieri gave the hosts an even more comfortable cushion.
They didn’t have much to show in terms of the scoreboard after the first, tied at one, despite hitting a pair of crossbars.
The first nearly plucked an opener three minutes in when a floater from Andy Greene fell to Matt Martin on the right post, but the fourth-liner’s chance through traffic didn’t have enough on it as Tuukka Rask was able to get over make the save.
A minute later, Nelson went crossbar on a wrister that sizzled over Rask’s shoulder — only the iron bailing out the star netminder.
With 8:52 gone in the first, though, the Islanders would strike first — going against the grain of the series tendency of Boston jumping out to an early lead. Travis Zajac, who stepped in so seamlessly for the injured Oliver Wahlstrom in the first round, beat his man in front of Rask and was able to pounce on a rebound from a Noah Dobson wrister and snap it past into the back of the net to shake the foundation of the Coliseum to its very core.
“It always helps when you play with the lead,” Zajac said. “We showed as a team that we’re comfortable with any type of game in any situation. We’ve shown a lot through adversity in these playoffs. It was nice to play with a lead throughout the game.”
After his verbal assault of the officials and the Islanders’ style of play, Bruce Cassidy got his wish as the Islanders were hit for two quick tripping penalties, giving the Bruins a 5-on-3 for 14 seconds.
While the Islanders killed off the first, they couldn’t get out of the second kill without yielding the equalizer as Brad Marchand had an easy one-timer in front of Varlamov’s goal as the Islanders’ defense gravitated to David Pastrnak in the left circle with 2:24 left in the frame.
A late push from the Islanders saw them settle things down approaching the break and nearly went back ahead at the buzzer, but Palmieri’s shot as time expired rang off the crossbar.
Nelson beat Rask again 5:20 into the second period, but this time, it found the back of the net to put the Islanders ahead. With play bogged down in the neutral zone, Nelson poked the puck away from Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk to get in alone on Rask. He kept his shot down this time, slotting his shot under the glove.
With 7:21 left in the period, he doubled his total and the Islanders’ lead after Rask played the puck around the boards from behind his net. It hopped over the stick of Mike Reilly and was caught by Josh Bailey, who centered in front where two Islanders were waiting. Nelson might have taken it off the stick of Beauvillier, but the results are all that matters as he slid a backhander under Rask to make it 3-1.
“He’s an elite talent, no question about that,” Bailey said of Nelson. “Big-game player. He doesn’t get enough recognition for what he does defensively. Just a complete 200-foot player. He’s been a real leader for us.”
Just 3:28 later, the Islanders had their fourth as another Bruins turnover — coupled with a focus on mugging Zajac behind the goal while he was down — led to Palmieri jamming a puck through Rask off an Adam Pelech shot that should’ve been cleared by Grzelcyk. But his nightmare Game 6 continued as he delivered the rebound right to an onrushing Palmieri right on the doorstep.
With another three-goal lead in the third period — just like in Game 5 — the Islanders cracked the door for the Bruins to get something going when Matt Martin tripped Jarred Tinordi 5:20 into the frame. Just 18 seconds into Boston’s man-advantage, Marchand got his second, weaving another easy one past a scrambling Varlamov.
But as they’ve done so often, the Islanders refound their footing and put on a clinic of playing with a lead — keeping Boston’s chances to the outside while playing the equivalent of keepaway. That included a minute-long possession in the Bruins zone which saw zero intention of attacking Rask’s net, just playing behind it. The move wound the clock down to 1:22 in regulation before Cal Clutterbuck snagged an empty-netter with 58.9 seconds to go.
Ten seconds later, Pulock put the icing on the cake with a bank shot from his own zone that trickled into the net.
“We recognized this was a special moment for this building,” Trotz said. “Guys understood the magnitude of this game and the importance of this game.. they’re a really solid veteran group and they understand the moments. This was a moment for them and the crowd. What a great atmosphere. It was deafening. I couldn’t hear anything out there I had some white noise for a while. It was fantastic.”