By Arnie Leshin
It was a must win for the 6th-seeded New York Islanders and they responded Friday night by getting past the 2nd-seeded Tampa Bay:Lightning, 5-3, to cut the Tampa Bay advantage to 2-1 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference finals of the National Hockey League playoffs at Rogers Place Arena in Edmonton Alberta.
In the Western Conference finals, the 4th-seeded Dallas Stars took a 2-1 lead in the series with Friday’s 3-2 success over the top-seeded Las Vegas Golden Knights at the same venue. The teams face off again on Sunday.
As for the Isles, they quickly scored the opening goal off the stick of Brook Nelson, but the Lightning responded with a goal from Tyler Johnson and it was 1-1 in period one. But in the second period, New York answered with back-to-back goals from Anthony Beauvillier and Jean-Gabriel Pageau and carried a 3-1 lead into the third period. The lead appeared safe until Tampa Bay knotted it at 3-3 behind goals from Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
Looking now as though it would be going into a second-straight overtime, there was 3:18remaining when the Islanders’ Cal Cutterbuck fired in a goal. Then with the clock ticking down, the Lightning left an empty net by replacing the goalie with an extra player.
It put pressure on Isles keeper Semyon Varlamov, but with only 20 seconds left, Adam Pelich took the puck down the ice with Tampa Bay’s Mikita Kuchern trailing him, and just as he sent the puck into the empty net, Kuchern stuck his stick at Pelich’s legs.
No whistle was blown for the obvious foul, but Pelich charged right after Kuchern, pushed him against the boards and both teams got into the clash. Time resumed with only 10 seconds left and New York, which eliminated the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in seven games while the Lightning did the same against the Boston Bruins.
Tampa Bay out shot the Islanders 37-35 and were called for seven penalties that brought 41 minutes in the penalty box, one on a 5-minute charged foul. New York picked up five penalties and spent 29 minutes in the penalty box.
Islander assists came from Nelson, Beauvilliier, Matt Martin, Gabriel-Pageau, Matthew Barzel, and two from Josh Bailey, and Varlamov came up with 37 saves. Tampa Bay picked up assists from Kuchern, Ryan Pulook, Derek Toews, Carter Verhaghe, and Yanni Gurde. .
The Lightning won game one, 8-2 and game two in overtime 3-2.