For 59 minutes, the New York Islanders were playing the type of game they wanted to against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was low-scoring, tight-checking and physical, tied 1-1 from the end of the first through the next 40 minutes. After allowing eight goals to the Lightning on Monday, the Isles held Tampa to 21 shots, the Lightning's fewest of the postseason.
In the end, it was the final minute that got away from the Islanders and eventually cost them, giving up the game-winning goal with 8.8 seconds to play in a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in Game 2. The Isles now trail the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final 2-0.
"It's a tough way to lose, eight seconds left on the clock," Matt Martin said. "We battled hard, I knew we would. I said the other night I have a lot of confidence in this team and we believe we can win the series - we still do. It was a good effort. Unfortunately, we came up short, but if we play like that - more often than not -you're going to win."
Nikita Kucherov delivered the dagger, as the Lightning swarmed the Islanders with three chances in the final 30 seconds of the game. Semyon Varlamov stopped a Yanni Gourde backhander with 19 seconds to play, and Ondrej Palat alone in front with 14 ticks on the clock. In the ensuing chaos, Kucherov found some open ice and undetected, one-timed a cross-ice feed from Ryan McDonagh to end it.
"I liked a lot about our game other than about the last 30 seconds," Head Coach Barry Trotz said, calling the loss a gut punch. "The first game wasn't us, that was a team that was tired. Today we got our energy back and we'll be ready for the next game. This group has a lot of character, a lot of fight in them."
After getting blitzed in the opening period of Game 1, the Islanders were adamant about getting off to a better start in Game 2.
They did just that, as Martin opened the scoring 1:24 into the game, posting up in front of the net and chipping a Nick Leddy feed off of Tyler Johnson and past Andrei Vasilevskiy. The goal was Martin's fifth in 18 playoff games - equaling his total from 55 regular-season games.
The Islanders appeared to have better legs on Wednesday, benefitting from a mental break and off-ice workout on Tuesday in Edmonton. Instead of chasing Tampa as they had on Monday, the Isles outshot the Lightning 13-4 in the first period, aided largely by an early five-minute power play after Alex Killorn hit Brock Nelson from behind. The Isles had five shots on the major, but couldn't extend their 1-0 lead.
Instead, Victor Hedman tied the score 1-1 at 18:25 of the first off an offensive zone draw, beating Varlamov with a point shot that caromed off the post and in. The icing that preceded the goal was not without its controversy, as it appeared that Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk touched the puck on the dump-in.
"On the first goal, we were sure they tipped it, that's why our bench was so upset, but there are things that are going to be missed and not called. You have to play through it," Trotz said. "It's playoff hockey. If we win the faceoff, we're not even talking about it."
The score remained 1-1 through a chippy second period, where Nelson was again hit from behind into the glass - this time by Barclay Goodrow with no penalty assessed - and Martin dropped the gloves with Luke Schenn.
The Isles had their chances, as Josh Bailey skied a rolling puck on a chance in front, while Ryan Pulock was denied on a breakaway at four-on-four. Again the Isles limited Tampa, holding the Lightning to six shots in the period and a meager 10 through 40 minutes. While the Lightning didn't get many looks, Varlamov was sharp, denying Patrick Maroon on a netfront chance late in the period.
The Islanders had another chance to close out the game in the third period, but couldn't muster much on a 38-second five-on-three with 10:50 to play. The Isles finished the game with 10:22 PP TOI and 13 shots with the man advantage.
"We had a couple of chances, but at the end of the day it's about capitalizing on those chances," Nick Leddy said. "Obviously we didn't do that."
With the loss, the Isles trail the series two games to none and have their work cut out for them. Per NHL PR, teams that take a 2-0 lead in the Conference Finals (since the format was adopted in 1981-82) own a series record of 31-2 (.939). Teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series own an all-time series record of 329-51 (.866), including a 5-0 mark in 2020.
Andrew Ladd made his first appearance of the postseason on Wednesday, drawing into the lineup with Leo Komarov in place of Derick Brassard and Ross Johnston on the third line.
Ladd played in the Isles' final regular season game on March 10 in Vancouver, but injuries and an AHL assignment limited the veteran to five games in 533 days. Ladd, a two-time Stanley Cup champion was playing in his first playoff game since the 2016 playoffs with Chicago, but Trotz said his mix of vet know-how and work ethic in the bubble earned him a place in the lineup.
"[He's played] a lot of games in the National hockey league, [that's] number one," Trotz said of Ladd. "It's hard enough in the bubble mentally to stay focused and find all of the things that you need mentally and emotionally. When you're not in the game, it's got to be a lot tougher. I give Andrew and our extra guys, who've worked and pushed each other [credit]. I knew he was ready. The coaches told us that he was ready. He's scored a lot of goals in that net front, he could help us on the power play, good wall play, all of that. I just felt that it was his time. I trust him. He's got about 900 games of NHL experience. That line was good today. All of that being said, he prepared for this moment. I thought he acquitted himself very well."
Ladd finished the game with five hits and a blocked shot in 11:50 TOI.
Cal Clutterbuck was a game-time decision ahead of Game 2, but the Isles winger was in the lineup after leaving Game 1. Clutterbuck had an effective game, skating 10:29 with six hits and three shots on goal.
Brock Nelson was sporting a cut and a welt under his right eye on Wednesday, the result of a pair of hits from behind into the glass.
The first game at 5:55 of the first period, when he was hit from behind by Alex Killorn, who was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct. Killorn's absence put Tampa down to 10 forwards early, as Jon Cooper opted to start the game with 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
Nelson said he cleared concussion protocol after the Killorn hit and returned in the second period, but took a crosscheck to the back of the neck/head area from Barclay Goodrow on his first shift back.
"I feel good," Nelson said. "I went through all the protocols and doctors did a good job with precautionary measures to make sure everything was good. Didn't want to rush anything. Kind of felt like I was getting hit quite a bit, but that's part of the game, just have to try to fight through it."
POINT LEAVES GAME:
While Nelson returned to the game, the same couldn't be said for Brayden Point.
The Lightning's leading scorer left the game midway through the second period and did not return. Point went awkwardly into the corner in the first period, took a few shifts early in the second before leaving the contest. There was no update on Point's status after the game.
"I don't have an update on him yet, but we all know the character of that kid and what a competitive gamer he is, so for him not to come back, I know it was tough on him and clearly it was tough on us as well," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "So maybe tomorrow I'll have a little bit more for you, but he couldn't come back tonight."
The Islanders and Lightning meet again in Game 3 on Friday night, puck drop is at 8 p.m.