Almost midway through the second period of Game 3 of the Islanders’ first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers, Florida’s Nick Bjugstad put a shot past Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead.
It was the 10th goal of the series at that point for Florida. It was also the last they would score that night before the Islanders chipped their way back to set up an overtime win.
After Bjugstad’s goal, the Panthers beat Greiss just four times the rest of the series over 291 minutes and 49 seconds of hockey, nearly five games worth of regulation ice time squeezed into three-plus games thanks to five overtime sessions.
Before Thomas Hickey and Alan Quine could become heroes with overtime goals, before John Tavares could drive the Barclays Center crowd beyond ecstasy with his series-clincher in the second overtime on Sunday night, Greiss kept the Panthers at bay to make it all possible.
“He came up big for us,” said coach Jack Capuano after the 2-1 Game 6 win that sent the Islanders into the second round to face the Tampa Bay Lightning. “There’s no doubt.”
It was a remarkable transformation. But that could describe Greiss’ entire season.
A career backup on his third team in three seasons, Greiss had never played more than 25 games in a season until he appeared in 41 this year. The 30-year-old, selected in the 2004 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks, spent a season out of the NHL in 2010-11.
Greiss spent last year in Pittsburgh after a season in Arizona and Islanders GM Garth Snow, in the market for quality goaltending depth behind Jaroslav Halak, saw Greiss as the answer.
When Halak suffered a preseason injury, Greiss’ role immediately grew. He started opening night against Chicago and three of the Islanders’ first four games before Halak returned. Greiss put up a 3-0-2 mark in his first five starts.
And he made a strong first impression off the ice as well.
“He’s one of the funniest guys I think that you can have in the dressing room,” said defenseman Travis Hamonic. “He’s really well-liked and respected. I think his demeanor has not changed one bit since the first time I met him. He’s obviously always smiling.”
The Islanders’ regular season ended the way it started, with Greiss in goal and Halak sidelined by injury. Halak went down against Pittsburgh on March 8, with a prognosis that he wouldn’t be able to return until late April.
That thrust Greiss into the No. 1 spot. He finished the regular season with a 23-11-4 mark, appearing in half the Islanders’ games and recording a .925 save percentage, the third-highest in the NHL.
“He’s just one of those guys that if something happens, there’s a mistake or whatever it is, it’s a quick turnaround,” said Hamonic. “It’s in his mind and it’s out pretty quickly. When you’re a player in front of a guy like Greisser, mistakes are going to happen and he’s certainly never one to make you feel bad about it and he’s always there to make sure he’s trying to back you up — and doing it with a smile most of the time.”
In the playoffs, Greiss has looked every bit the part of a No. 1 goalie. He held the Panthers scoreless over the final 45:08 of Game 3 as Shane Prince and Frans Nielsen scored second-period goals to tie the game before Hickey delivered the game-winner 12:31 into overtime.
The Islanders dropped Game 4 2-1 before winning the final two games of the series in double overtime.
“Unbelievable tight games,” said Greiss. “Both teams were just battling so hard. There’s not much room for error on both sides.”
Through it all, Greiss played 79 minutes and 12 seconds of overtime in the series without allowing a single goal. The Islanders’ path to the long-elusive second round featured three overtime wins that could have gone the other way with one slip-up.
But that extra pressure doesn’t seem to matter to Greiss.
“Not really,” said the goalie. “Some guys get more pumped up, but for me it’s just go and try and play my game, that’s it.”
“It seems like nothing can rattle him,” said Hamonic. “He’s a guy that we enjoy playing in front of.”