The New York Islanders are going to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Islanders beat the Panthers 2-1 in double-overtime on Sunday night, taking their Eastern Conference First Round series in six games and advancing to the second round for the first time since 1993.
In a fitting moment, John Tavares scored the game-tying and game-winning goals, the Islanders’ best player raising his game at the biggest time. He scored his first with 53.2 seconds to play in the third period and the winner, a wraparound, at 10:41 of the second overtime.
“It’s hard to even believe it’s over,” Tavares said of the marathon game and marathon series, which saw three games go to overtime and two to double-overtime. “It was hard fought, give Florida a ton of credit; it was a heck of a series. Every game was tight.”
The captain, who led the Islanders through their rebuild was the one to lead them through to the second round for first time in 23 years. Cal Clutterbuck said Sunday night was just as much for the fans as it was for the guys in the room.
“It’s just been a decade and a half of inconsistency and it’s good to be the team that allows people to enjoy the moment that gets over that hump,” Clutterbuck said. “For us to come together, we’re starting to realize our potential. So it’s exciting for people to see and it’s something to cheer about.”
Sunday’s game showcased the Islanders’ resiliency as a group as well as their maturity as a group. At times on Sunday night, it really felt like the hockey gods were teasing the Islanders, as they fell behind in the first period on a Jonathan Huberdeau goal despite being the superior team and couldn’t beat Roberto Luongo (49 saves), who was stopping pucks he couldn’t even see in the first 59 minutes.
“It we stop with a minute left today, we’re going back and playing game seven in Florida,” Clutterbuck said. “You just have to stick with it and keep pushing forward.”
The most gut-wrenching moment came when the Panthers had possession with the Islanders net empty. With Nick Leddy playing goalie with a minute to go, Aaron Ekblad sent a wrist shot on the fairly-empty net. Leddy blocked the game-sealer and took off down the other end. The smooth-skating defenseman carried the puck all the way to the Islanders goal line, backhanded a shot on Luongo and kicked off a chain of events around the net. Luongo blocked Leddy’s shot and thought he had Nikolay Kulemin’s rebound, but the puck squeaked through, sitting in the crease for John Tavares, who potted the tying goal with 53.2 seconds to play.
“In the last minute you just try to go to the net, get lost and lucky enough the puck just barely squirted under Luongo,” Tavares said. “I was happy being alone. Obviously couldn’t be any easier. Great play by Leds skating it in and Kule just going to the net. Just lucky I was the one that was there.”
But getting to overtime was really only half the battle. The extra frame was not for the faint of heart, with surges going back and forth. The Islanders peppered Luongo with 15 shots in the first OT, while Thomas Greiss stopped 13 of his 41 shots, with a host of different players all vying for the leather jacket. At one point it looked like Steve Bernier – a healthy scratch until Game 5 – would be the hero, at another, Alan Quine, the rookie callup. Tavares and Kyle Okposo each took a swing of their own, but through 20 minutes, neither team could find the finishing touch.
Exhaustion started to set in the second overtime. Tavares said he felt his legs cramping up in the dogpile and that if he hadn’t scored, taking Okposo’s rebound, circling the net and depositing the winner, he wasn’t sure if he could continue. But Sunday wasn’t about hypotheticals, it was about the Islanders coming together for their biggest win in over two decades and Tavares being the one to lead them.
“We went through the rebuilding stage with a young hockey club and went through some tough times, we knew eventually we’d get to this point,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “I can’t be more proud of the group that we have, led by our captain.”
Sunday was a step in the right direction for the Islanders. 1993 is now where it belongs, in the distant past. It’s about 2016 now and the push forward, starting this week in Tampa Bay.
CAPUANO ON ISLANDERS ADVANCING: MAIN REASON IS OUR CAPTAIN
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NIELSEN & OKPOSO DISCUSS ISLANDERS SERIES WIN OVER PANTHERS
TAVARES DISCUSSES SERIES-CLINCHING WIN OVER PANTHERS
GREISS: ISLANDERS PLAYED BEST GAME OF SERIES IN GAME 6
QUINE: TAVARES IS UNBELIEVABLE TO PLAY WITH
BOYCHUK: GOOD JOB BY EVERYBODY TO BATTLE THROUGH
TAVARES SCORES SERIES-CLINCHER FOR ISLANDERS IN 2OT