For a while, it looked as if the Islanders might win this thing, even after being badly outplayed over the first two periods. First, Washington goalie Braden Holtby allowed an easy shot by Frans Nielsen to slip through his pads and tie the score 3:13 into the third. Then Jaroslav Halak reacted to a fluke bounce off the boards and robbed Jay Beagle when he had a wide-open net to shoot at. Troy Brouwer soon pounced on an awful giveaway, but Halak stoned him too, and Brouwer was so frustrated he made a motion as if to snap his stick in half.
In the end, the difference maker in the series turned out to be a talented young center from Russia who had scored just 11 goals during the regular season.
Evgeny Kuznetsov wears the year he was born (92) on his back — he turns 23 in May — and this is his first full season in the NHL. Unlike the Islanders’ 24-year-old Anders Lee, also in his first full season, Kuznetsov blossomed into an increasingly dangerous threat as the series went along, scoring three goals in the Capitals’ last two victories. This was in stark contrast to Lee, who was second on the team with 25 goals during the season but so ineffective during the playoffs that he was a healthy scratch for Games 6 and 7.
At 12:42 of the third period, Kuznetsov took matters into his own hands. Closely watched by Nielsen along the boards to Halak’s left, the left-handed shooter suddenly sped across the slot, drew Halak down to the ice and flipped a wrist shot past the goaltender for the series-winning goal. The Isles’ best chance to score after that came when Kyle Okposo waited and waited and waited for Holtby to give him some net to shoot at — only to fire his shot wide.
This defeat, however, was to bring one final indignity upon the Islanders.
For the first 57 minutes of the game, not a single penalty was called. In the second, Alex Ovechkin got away with slamming Isles defenseman Thomas Hickey into the boards face-first, and Joel Ward whacked Johnny Boychuk in the head with his stick just before shoving in the rebound that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead at 18:35 of the period.
The only penalty in the entire game came at 17:06 of the third, when Caps defenseman John Carlson was called for roughing Casey Cizikas. And with their season on the line, the Islanders’ power play once again failed to produce even a scoring chance, never mind consistent pressure in the Capitals’ zone. Halak was pulled with about a minute left, but the attack deserted the Islanders when they needed it most.
The Islanders, a team that averaged nearly 34 shots on goal per game during the season, managed just 11 — or one period’s worth — for the entire game tonight. Five of those were by Boychuk, a defenseman; Nielsen and Okposo were the only Islander forwards to get a shot on net, as John Tavares and the rest were completely bottled up. The Isles had just 20 shot attempts — not shots on goal, attempts — through two periods, while the Capitals had 47. That’s how much Washington dominated puck possession for the first 40 minutes, most of which were spent in the Islanders’ zone.
Despite all that, Halak’s goaltending made the game winnable (he finished with 24 saves and was named the game’s third star). And with the puck bouncing the Islanders’ way for much of the third period, I dared to dream.
But instead of witnessing the Islanders’ first playoff series win since 1993, I saw Evgeny Kuznetsov steal the spotlight from his countryman Ovechkin. And instead of forcing overtime in the final minutes, the Islanders’ power play finished the series with the same numerical ineptitude as the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 0 for 14.
So there will be no more Islander games at Nassau Coliseum, no playoff matchup with the rival Rangers to turn New York into Hockeytown USA. The postseason series I’ve been dreaming about for months — a series that even had some non-hockey fans on sports-talk radio buzzing with anticipation — will not come about.
This is not acceptable to me. Washington was a beatable opponent for the Islanders, who came close to taking the series in a sweep. They had a two-goal lead in the second period — and were facing a backup goalie — in Game 2, and they lost Game 4 in overtime. Missed opportunities — beginning with their failure to secure home ice in the final week of the season — came back to haunt the Islanders, who could have had control of the series but instead needed a Herculean effort Saturday to force a Game 7.
At least Nassau Coliseum went out with a victory. Still, the Old Barn deserved better than a first-round exit, and the fans who brought so much noise and energy to the outdated arena deserved better than Rangers vs. Capitals in the second round.
Filed April 27, 2015
Sources: NHL.com, fantasysp.com, MSG Network