One more game in what has become a classic series entered the third period clenchingly close, this time 1-1. Nikolay Kulemin's winner 10:33 into the third period put the Isles ahead 2-1 in what became a 3-1 win after an empty net goal.
If this was the last game in Nassau Coliseum's history, then they played it out in style. But the win means there could be more this spring. The Isles are heading to Washington for Game 7, and that's a scenario many fans remember well, and with glee.
Lineup Changes: By Necessity and Then Some
The Islanders had a considerably different look from Game 5, most notably with a completely new defensive pair.
- Little-used Matt Donovan finally was rescued from cold storage for his first NHL playoff game -- and just his 13th game of 2014-15. Joining him was Scott Mayfield, who hadn't played a single NHL game this season and spent his age 22 season in AHL Bridgeport. They replaced Calvin de Haan, who was injured in Game 5, and Griffin Reinhart, who looked outmatched in that contest.
- Those youngsters didn't play a lot, but they acquitted themselves pretty well. Mayfield in particular did not look at all rattled despite seeing his first NHL action since over a year ago; Donovan's task may have been harder, given how much he's sat and watched games this year.
- Tyler Kennedy failed on a crucial dump-in in Game 5, one that drew the coaching staff's ire, so he was scratched. In his place was Brock Nelson, who was back on the top line after getting a puzzling scratch in Game 5.
- Also slotting in at forward was Colin McDonald, who replaced a possibly injured Anders Lee (reports were unclear) and lined up next to Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. Nelson had an energetic game, and goodness did Grabovski show what they've been missing without him since February.
- If you haven't seen the Austrian report, the speculation about MIchael Grabner still battling a seasonlong injury may be true, as he is supposedly set for another offseason hernia/abdoimnal surgery.
First Period: 10 Good Minutes, Then Penalties
The Islanders opened well, as they usually do at home and often have whether at home or road in this series. But penalties bit them during the final seven minutes.
An early chance came when Tavares passed up a one-time attempt to pass back to Ryan Strome in the slot, but Strome had to dust off the pass and by the time he got a shot off, Matt Niskanen was there to block it. But the duo hooked up for the first goal at 6:56, with Tavares cutting across the slot and beating Braden Holtby low inside the post as Brock Nelson screened.
Before the Tavares opening goal, the Capitals had an early two-on-one that Jaroslav Halak stopped. That rush was made possible by John Tavares losing his stick on a big hit attempt by a Capital, so Tavares was back at the Isles bench retrieving his stick -- and dropping it -- as the Caps bore down on Scott Mayfield.
The Islanders could not add to their 1-0 lead before the Capitals received a string of three consecutive power plays. First Brian Strait was called for high-sticking (evidently right after Jack Capuano warned players to keep their sticks down), Nikolay Kulemin was called for cross-checking (right after Tavares and Alex Ovechkin exchanged cross-checks and punches between the two benches), and finally Tavares was called for slashing Evgeni Kuznetsov as he carried through the neutral zone.
The Isles killed the first two quite well, but the third one was costly, even though it came with just 33 seconds left. After several aborted faceoffs and clears that went out of play, the Isles got caught on a speedy transition to allow the Capitals one more chance before the end of the period. John Carlson's shot appeared to hit the heel of Thomas Hickey's skate, elevating just enough to get past Halak.
Second Period: Attrition, Goaltending, Bounces
The second period was a stalemate of hitting and agonizingly close chances, with the Isles having Holtby prone or scrambling on multiple occasions but unable to beat him.
Mikhail Grabovski's shot off the rush shouldn't have been a great chance, but Holtby's glove popped it up, rolling down Holtby's back, and dribbling just outside the post. Grabovski set up Nikolay Kulemin for a backhand chance that Holtby did well to glove after Grabovski won a forecheck and immediately passed out front.
On the Capitals' closest chance, Andre Burakovsky hit Halak in the mask with a shot, which skittered wide. With only coincidental penalties to speak of outside of an early Isles power play, the Isles had a 17-10 shot advantage in the period.
From the close chances, you could argue either team could've easily emerged with a two-goal lead. Instead, the 1-1 score remained heading into the third.
But the Isles would be without Donovan for a good eight minutes of it, as he drew a 10-minute misconduct from a post-whistle scrum after he led a rush into the zone. Matt Niskanen poked him a few times after the whistle, Donovan took exception, and apparently he didn't let it die and received an early intermission. No one had any explanation though after the game.
Third Period: Pulling Ahead by a Hair
The third period opened with a great fourth-line shift that kept the puck in the Capitals zone and drew a Capitals icing. Though Tavares won the ensuing faceoff, the Isles couldn't convert and the Capitals escaped with a change.
The Isles then had a few more quick chances, most notably Kyle Okposo hitting the post high after Nicklas Backstrom turned the puck over in his own zone.
Finally they broke through on a broken play, after an exchange of late-in-a-series anger ostensibly over the puck along the player benches. Backstrom took stabs at Strome. Strome shoved back. Joel Ward wrestled with Johnny Boychuk, who once again was keeping Ovechkin's shots to the outside all afternoon. Boychuk eventually body slammed Ward as the puck squirted back into the Isles' zone.
With may and hem still conjoined, Tavares took the puck into the Caps zone one-on-three and got a shot off. As he tried to retrieve in the corner he was double-teamed, with Ovechkin jumping in to deliver the second blow with a hard check. But Ovechkin couldn't find the puck, Nick Leddy could -- it has moved to the half boards -- and found Kulemin all alone in front, where he deposited the go-ahead goal around Holtby.
For those accustomed to notice Ovechkin's tendency to deliver trademark running charges when opponents don't see him coming, there was a satisfying beauty in seeing Ovechkin standing, admiring his hit, then looking around lost in a desperate search for the puck while both Leddy and Kulemin were free.
In a final eight minutes of conservative, absorbing hockey by the Isles, the Caps' best chance came after the Isles failed on a clear with 5:33 left. Halak made a save of a rebound of the initial shot that hit Leddy, then Jay Beagle was alone in front but hit the crossbar over Halak.
WOW. that did not go in. pic.twitter.com/CDKjgmWaSM— Stephanie Vail (@myregularface) April 25, 2015
Cal Clutterbuck relieved the tension and removed all doubt -- but no doubt increased the hatred toward him just one bit more -- with an empty net goal from center ice with 53 seconds left.
After a final defensive zone draw with two seconds remaining, the Isles took exception to Carlson firing a shot at Halak after the final horn. A typical scrum ensued, with guys on the ice pairing off and wrestling. No punches though. No autopsy no foul.
Game 7: Monday
The familiar tension, anger, and post-whistle silliness has predictably escalated as this series has continued on. Game 7 should bring more, though it will be interesting to see who keeps their head and how the officials handle it. Tonight, they kept a good lid on things with coincidentals and freebies when players got stupid, only penalizing for stick infractions.