The New York Islanders won their first playoff series in 23 years after captain John Tavares, the hope and franchise star for this era of Islanders revival, tied the game in the final minute of regulation and then scored the 2-1 overtime winner 10:41 into the second overtime period.
It was the Islanders' third overtime victory of the series, and probably their best game as well. Despite a strong Isles start on home ice, Florida was not about to pack their game away as they faced elimination. Florida brought a 1-0 lead into the first period and controlled most of the second, witht he Islanders again calling upon Thomas Griess (41 saves) to keep the game close.
But once Tavares gave the Isles new life, it was they who controlled most of overtime. Tavares' series clincher came on the rebound of his own shot, which he collected by the net to the left of Roberto Luongo (49 saves) and then wrapped it around into the other side of the net.
We watch sports for drama like this: virtually unknown sixth-round pick Alan Quine scoring in double overtime in Game 5, and then the franchise's savior scoring both big goals in Game 6 to bring the franchise, in its first year in Brooklyn, farther than they've gone since 1993.
For NHL fans, it's almost a shame to see the exciting young Panthers go -- though you know they'll be back -- and and to miss a Battle of Florida between them and the Lightning.
But Islanders fans have waited long enough for this.
How it all went down, more or less...
First Period: Good Start
The Islanders came out more as you'd hope they could, working patiently around the Panthers trap to create opportunities for trailing skaters. Chances were few, but the ingredients were there.
For once the Isles didn't give up an early goal and in fact outshot Florida 7-5 and out-attempted them 26-14, including a few attempts on the first period's only power play, due to a Jaromir Jagr hooking penalty.
But the Panthers struck first with just over a minute left in the period. It was just one of those goals: a bouncing, redirected at the blueline led to a turnover by Shane Prince, the Panthers were quick to gain the line, and Jonathan Huberdeau unleashed a hard shot from distance that Thomas Greiss likely would have saved if it hadn't taken a ramping bounce off Nick Leddy's leg.
If that weren't deflating enough, the Isles also lost Josh Bailey and Cal Clutterbuck at separate times due to injury. Clutterbuck would return in the second period from the puck he took straight to the nose.
Second Period: Regression
Either that late goal settled the Panthers down, or they just remembered how dominant they can be and have been at times in this series. They blitzed the Isles in the second period, particularly in the first 10-plus minutes, and it was again but for the grace of Greiss that the deficit remained 1-0.
That included some good saves and clears on two penalty kills, which though very threatening, almost seemed to get the Panthers out of their five-on-five rhythm once the penalties expired. Shots in the period ended up being just 12-10 for the Panthers, but the visitors had the better of play and scary chances.
Third Period: Late Salvation
The crowd was boisterous and filling the building with energy for what could have been the last period at Barclays this season, but it took a while for the Isles to start generating chances that were convincing enough to make you think they might tie the game.
But all they needed was one.
The comeback attempts were interrupted by a Thomas Hickey hip check interference penalty at 9:11. The Isles did well to kill it and even applied some counterattack pressure as it expired. Then Hickey drew a soft high-sticking penalty on Jonathan Huberdeau, whose frustration was visible as he's spent several crucial moments in the penalty box during this series.
No luck on that one either, however, and the top-line players had to regroup for one last push with under six minutes to go.
It was almost over, too: Matt Martin probably should've been whistled for tripping as he dove to prevent an empty-net attempt with Greiss pulled for a sixth attacker. Then Nick Leddy blocked two attempts headed toward the empty goal.
Leddy led a rush up ice, went outside on the right wing, and fed in front for a rush of Isles forwards. Luongo stopped the first one, but couldn't locate the rebound, which lay at the top of the crease for Tavares to easily poke home.
Overtime 1: So many chances
Like this series' other two overtimes, the Isles had the early push. This time with the series in their sights, they kept pushing for probably their best overtime period yet, outshooting the Panthers 15-8, though Greiss definitely had to be dialed in for the shots that reached him.
One oh-that-would-have-been-epic moment was when Tavares retrieved a pass behind him on the left wing and somehow got enough leverage to send a high backhand that either hit Luongo's shoulder/mask or slipped just high. Kyle Okposo, who had a very active game as the Panthers keyed on linemate Tavares, had two golden chances to win it but for the bounce of the puck on its way toward his blade.
Alan Quine had a wonderful chance to be the OT hero again with three minutes left, aiming hard to nail that top corner, but Luongo got a piece to send it sailing against the glass.
The Isles played a little short on the blueline, with Johnny Boychuk missing a significant stretch -- about 12:00 to 18:19 of the first OT -- as he went to the locker room for skate repairs.
Of interest on Florida's side, Shawn Thonrton saw zero shifts in the first OT, though he made an appearance on the ice during the second. Jiri Hudler saw one shift in the first OT. He got more shifts in double OT, prompting the NBC Sports announcers (including Ray "I passed to Volek" Ferraro!) to reference the famous Petr Klima Oilers OT winner of yesteryear.
Overtime 2: Jagr Line, Tavares Line, Someone Flip a Coin
The Panthers started with the terrifying Jaromir Jagr line, who again terrified as they are wont to do, keeping the puck in the Isles zone. After he went to the bench after taking an Aaron Ekblad shot to the leg, Reilly Smith came on and whistled a shot off the crossbar behind Griess.
Jagr was okay, and on his next shift he again exerted pressure, in part thanks to Calvin de Haan and Johnny Boychuk doing their "no you take it" hot potato drill behind the net.
The game ultimately became the two top lines trading chances for their turns on the ice.
Despite Jagr's mammoth efforts, it wasn't to be for Florida.
There is only one John Tavares.