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Islanders' Greiss has emerged in playoffs

Goaltender has moved from backup to MVP candidate for New York

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TAMPA -- It was little more than a month ago, in this building, against this team, when Thomas Greiss made people wonder whether he could handle this.

He had taken over as the New York Islanders' starting goaltender after an injury to Jaroslav Halak, and had lost his fourth straight game, giving up six goals to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on March 25. His teammates hadn't played well in front of him, surrendering 41 shots, but he would have liked to have had at least a couple of the goals back.

The Newsday headline: "Goalie Thomas Greiss hasn't seized his opportunity for Islanders."

Well, he has seized it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Greiss defeated Roberto Luongo and the Florida Panthers in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round, winning three overtime games, two in double OT, and defeated Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop and the Lightning in Game 1 of the second round Wednesday, fending off a flurry in the third period.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm1: Greiss makes last-second stop on Palat

Entering play Thursday, Greiss, 30, who has bounced from league to league and team to team as a pro and been a backup virtually his entire NHL career, ranked third in goals-against average (1.94) and save percentage (.941) in the playoffs.

"He's been a wall," Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic said. "Solid."

The Islanders needed a solid backup. They signed Chad Johnson before the 2014-15 season, then sent him to the Buffalo Sabres for Michal Neuvirth at the NHL Trade Deadline, then watched Neuvirth leave for the Philadelphia Flyers in free agency.

So they signed Greiss on July 1. At that point, he was with his fourth NHL organization. He had never played more than 25 games in an NHL season.

Greiss thrived as Halak's backup. He got the chance to start 26 times and had a .930 save percentage. But there is a big difference between being a backup and being the starter, in terms of the workload, pressure and mental approach.

After Halak was injured March 8, Greiss struggled in his next seven starts, allowing at least three goals five times as the Islanders went 1-5-1, culminating in that lopsided loss to the Lightning.

It was fair to wonder how he would fare in the playoffs. His only NHL playoff experience had come in 2010, when he played 40 minutes for the San Jose Sharks against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round after Evgeni Nabokov got pulled.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm1: Greiss denies Callahan at the doorstep

"I think everybody at one point in time goes through a rough stretch in the regular season," Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. "You're not going to play your best every night, but he bounced back and has been playing great. He has to continue to do so."

As good as Greiss was against the Panthers, he was still supposed to be no match for Bishop, who led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final last season and was named a Vezina finalist for the second time in his career.

But it was Bishop who was pulled from Game 1 after allowing four goals on 13 shots, and it was Greiss who was lauded by his coach for how well he helped his defense diffuse the forecheck, not Bishop, one of the best puckhandlers among goaltenders.

"We talk about a lot of goaltenders in this league," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I thought [Greiss] really communicated with our 'D'. They've got a tremendous forecheck, they come hard, and we were able to do a good job when the goalie touches took place."

Greiss is known as an easy-going guy and a top-of-the-crease goaltender, and it showed in the third period Wednesday. The Islanders sat back too much and watched a 4-1 lead dwindle to 4-3, but it could have been worse. Greiss stayed cool, stayed aggressive, faced 17 shots and made 15 saves.

Three saves stood out.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm1: Greiss denies Kucherov on wrap-around

Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, tied with Islanders captain John Tavares for the playoff goal-scoring lead with six, wrapped around the net and tried to stuff the puck inside the left post. Greiss pushed to his right, did the splits and got his right pad on the puck.

"I just threw my leg over there somehow, and that was pretty much it," Greiss said.

He used his right pad to deny Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin from in close. Then he used his blocker to stop Lightning defenseman Nikita Nesterov from the side.

"You battle as hard as you can," Greiss said. "You never want to give up goals. It doesn't matter if you're up three goals or one goal. … You always want to stop everything you can."

Logic says Greiss will regress and Bishop will rebound. But you never know in the playoffs, who gets hot and how long they can sustain it. And listening to Greiss after Game 1, you wouldn't know if he had just defeated the Lightning, if he had just lost to the Lightning or if he was, well, Bishop.

"You just worry about the next game," Greiss said. "It's in the past. There's nothing you can do about it. You keep going forward here and worry about the next game."

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