The Florida Panthers rode their young guns (and ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr) to put the New York Islanders on their heels all night and tie their first-round playoff series at 2-2 with a 2-1 defeat of the home team in Game 4.
The game started conservatively for both teams, but the Islanders, who had given up the first goal early in each of the first three games, were shockingly passive, taking their own crowd out of the game. They had a grand total of eight shots at the game's halfway mark.
Coming off Sunday's thrilling Game 3 overtime -- a game they were in many ways fortunate to come back and win -- the stage was set for the Isles to build off the energetic Barclays Center crowd, win consecutive playoff games for the first time in over a decade, and put the Panthers on the brink of elimination.
Instead, they had yet another slow start, never rewarded 15,797 fans' attempts to get into the game and build some atmosphere, and looked every gift horse in the mouth.
Thomas Greiss did his best to keep them within reach, John Tavares did his best to tie it once and generate the only offense along with Kyle Okposo, and the Isles even benefited from another video review. But they still end up heading to Florida for Game 5 with the series tied. Instead of being in position to finish the series, they have to win two of three with only one game left at home.
Tactically, with a two-day break in between games after the teams played three games in four nights to open the series, the Panthers rode their young forwards to good effect. They dressed seven defensemen and 11 forwards, sitting center Greg McKegg and relying on young Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad to carry the load down the middle. (Seventh defenseman Jakub Kindl just sat. And sat...and sat.)
That move certainly challenged the Islanders, but that doesn't excuse the display. The coaching staff mixed up the lines in the second period for a while, to shake things up, and there was a brief period -- like, we're talking two shifts -- where they exerted decent even strength pressure. But if not for special teams and Greiss this game wouldn't have been close.
The Better Team (By Far) Won.
At no point did the Isles look like they deserved to win this game.
At way too few points did they look like they were trying to.
If the Isles had pulled another rabbit out of a hat, you'd almost feel guilty except that Greiss deserved better, and Tavares would have surely earned the reward that only he could've salvaged from this outing.
On the whole, they exhibited every frustration fans have had about them this season, with inconsistent play and shocking episodes of lethargy undermining golden opportunities to improve their lot. Among the chances at a reprieve wasted:
- Greiss made big saves on heart-stopping opportunities to keep it scoreless in the first period, and close throughout the other two.
- A Jonathan Huberdeau breakaway -- itself a counterattack after the Islanders' first signs of sustained pressure in the second period -- crossed the line but was ruled no goal on video review.
- And after finally giving up a Panthers power play goal late in the second period, they took advantage of a late power play opportunity as Tavares worked his magic to tie the game.
The Isles were given new life -- or rather, a new opportunity for life -- heading into the third period. But they didn't take that either.
Tempting fate all night, it finally bit them again when Alex Petrovic scored on a pump-fake shot through traffic at 9:25 of the third period. The Islanders at least created chances, but still ultimately wasted, their final gift of the night when Huberdeau went to the box after hooking Thomas HIckey with 3:33 remaining in regulation.
All of the playoff demons, both for this particular squad and for the fans who've survived the last two decades, remain alive and well. They are tucked in and will sleep well tonight.
Game 5 is Friday in Florida. Game 6, which is now a certainty, is Sunday back in Brooklyn. May neither of them be as frustrating as this one.