The New York Islanders came one win short of their quest to return to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1984, felled by a 1-0 loss in Game 7 of the East(ish) Conference Final to the Lightning in Tampa.
The loss ends an epic ride with many memorable postseason moments for this loveable Islanders squad, which conspired with fans to send Nassau Coliseum into (NHL playoff) retirement with a few more stories in its annals. In this third round alone, there were moments that sadly were part of a lost cause but will not be forgotten for how they were sports at its best — like Ryan Pulock’s game saver in Game 4 and Anthony Beauvillier’s OT winner in Game 6.
Alas, this rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference final ends with the same ultimate result — the Lightning return to the Stanley Cup final — but this one went seven games instead of six, and the Isles pushed the defending champions as far as you can without taking them down. Both franchises had the added joy of actually having fans present to make it all feel real.
In Game 7, Semyon Varlamov made 30 saves, but the game turned on the only shot he allowed, a Yanni Gourde shorthanded goal 1:49 into the second period. The Lightning put it all on the line to protect the lead the rest of the way, blocking 21 shots overall — Andrei Vasilevskiy needed only 18 saves for the shutout — and delivering a disciplined performance to stifle the Isles. You don’t have to like them, but you can tip your hat to how they closed it out.
First Period: Just a tad bit better than Game 5
Last time the Isles were in Tampa, it was franchise-record slaughter that started bad and only got worse in Game 5. This time around there were no tough bounces to get things off on the wrong foot, and the Isles looked positionally rigid to prevent a repeat.
The Lightning came out with a hard, coordinated forecheck and had the better of play in the first period, while the Islanders patiently sagged and absorbed the pressure. The Isles’ worst shift came early, when the J-G Pageau line was hemmed in with multiple clearing attempts blocked. That set a bit of an early tone, and the Lightning had several stretches where they maintained possession in the Isles zone and tried to bait or criss-cross the Isles out of their structure, but their best chances during zone time came from outside shots through traffic or jam plays.
But Victor Hedman had the most dangerous overall chance, after Nick Leddy tried to catch a Mikhail Sergachev lob pass through the neutral zone and demonstrated less-than-shortstop skills in execution. That freed Hedman for a break-in alone, where he forced a good stick-side save by Semyon Varlamov to stop a shot headed just inside the near post.
The Islanders rarely pressed play in the Tampa zone and took few risks. Ultimately they were way too safe in breaking out of their own zone or attempting counterattacks, but at least that care also extended to avoiding the penalty box.
In the end, official shots in the first were 14-5 for the Lightning, but the important ledger remained 0-0.
Second and Third Periods: Shorthander of Death
That the Isles escaped the first unscathed was true to your desired script, and a power play early in the second provided an opportunity to build a happy story.
Instead, the only penalty of the game proved devastatingly pivotal.
Just 50 seconds into the second period, Barclay Goodrow was whistled for a crosscheck — because sometimes they call those — and the Isles had decent pressure for the first minute of the power play. But the line on the ice was at the end of a long shift with the puck in the zone, and no one played Anthony Cirelli as hard as they should have as he went into the corner of the Isles zone.
He fed a pass to Yanni Gourde, who was breaking into the slot and placed his shot perfectly in the near post. The Isles were suddenly down 1-0, the Tampa crowd and its noisemaker giveaways came alive, and the Lightning had the lead they needed to force the Isles to push the game.
Anthony Beauvillier had a sweet deflection off the bar in tight, probably their best and closest chance to get an equalizer in the second.
The third period featured the Lightning fully flipping the script on the Isles, keeping events low and using the boards and the corners to keep the Isles and the puck far away from where they needed to go.
There were a few chances late, including Mathew Barzal twice from down low, Beauvillier through traffic, and a few desperate one-timers from distance. But the Lightning were blocking shots, clogging the middle, disrupting the neutral zone flow, and generally being very Trotzian.
The players reactions kind of say it all...
A very choked-up Barzal: "It sucks getting back to this point, coming up short again. Guys like Bails and Greener, you want to win for those guys. It sucks knowing how close we were." #Isles— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) June 26, 2021
More from Bailey: "Game 7 of the conference final, you have thoughts of obviously wanting to move on and accomplishing something with this group and winning a cup. It wasn't in the cards this year. It's a tough pill to swallow." #Isles— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) June 26, 2021
Scott Mayfield: "It's an honor to play with these guys. I don't think back-to-back being the last four teams is a fluke. I don't know if too many people believed in us the first couple rounds but we believed in ourselves." #Isles— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) June 26, 2021
Trotz: "I said to them, this group is special. Their character, their work ethic. It's undeniable. Our group believed we could do this. We still could. Some guys are beat up, worn out, hurt and they just keep going. There's a bond between the players that's really strong." #Isles— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) June 26, 2021
So the Lightning move on to face the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup final and attempt a repeat of the Cup they won last summer in the bubble.
The Islanders move to offseason plans, with the draft and free agency coming up swiftly in July, and many decisions to make, ranging from stalwart center Casey Cizikas to the trio of ex-Devils they’ve acquired over the last two trade deadlines.
Here we’ll have post-mortems, podcasts, report cards, and our usual assortment of tomfoolery. But for now, we’re just sharing the pain, icing our mental bruises, and offering all of you readers and commenters one massive thank you for sharing a tremendous 2020-21 ride with us.