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New York falls behind 2-0 in Eastern Conference finals

Isles praying for a win Friday vs. Tampa

September 11, 2020 John Torenli
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The New York Islanders rediscovered their grittiness and hard-nosed defensive style Wednesday night in Edmonton, Alberta.

Now, they just have to figure out a way to actually beat the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I liked a lot about our game other than about the last 30 seconds,” Isles head coach Barry Trotz lamented moments after his team suffered a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to the Lightning on Nikita Kucherov’s goal with 8.8 seconds remaining in regulation.

The “gut punch” defeat, as Trotz termed it, dropped New York into a 2-0 hole in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals, leaving the Isles desperate to jump back into the series when it resumes Friday night at the NHL’s fanless bubble site.

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After getting thumped from start to finish during an 8-2 defeat in Monday’s series opener, which came after Saturday’s Game 7 win over Philadelphia in the conference semifinals and a long flight from Toronto, the Isles showed considerable jump Wednesday.

They once again looked like the team that vanquished Florida in four games in the qualifying round, steamrolled past Washington in five in the conference quarterfinals and eked by the Flyers after nearly squandering a 3-1 series lead.

“The first game wasn’t us, that was a team that was tired,” Trotz noted. “Today we got our energy back and we’ll be ready for the next game.”

Ultimately, the Isles’ refound vigor just wasn’t enough against the Lightning, who peppered Semyon Varlamov with several shots in the closing stages before Kucherov delivered a cross-ice feed from former New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh into the back of the net.

“It’s a tough way to lose, eight seconds left on the clock,” admitted veteran forward Matt Martin, who scored the Isles’ lone goal just 84 seconds into the opening stanza.

“We battled hard, I knew we would,” he added. “I said the other night I have a lot of confidence in this team and we believe we can win the series. We still do. It was a good effort. Unfortunately, we came up short, but if we play like that, more often than not, you’re going to win.”

The Isles will have to take four of the next five games to advance to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1984.

Doing so against a resourceful Lightning squad, which has won each of its last six playoff games, won’t be easy.

Tampa Bay saw leading scorer Brayden Point go down with an apparent lower-body injury in the second period of Game 2, but still found a way to penetrate the Isles’ defense when it mattered most.

“Any goal is a good goal and a huge goal in the series, especially that one,” said Kucherov following his sixth tally of the playoffs and second of this series.

“We were short [at forward], and we tried to play disciplined defensively and we knew our chances were going to come. We just had to wait and we got rewarded, and definitely it was huge for us. We’ll take it.”

And they’ll likely take the series if New York can’t rebound in a hurry.

The Isles must overcome some serious odds to continue their longest postseason run since 1993.

Only two of 33 teams who have fallen behind 2-0 in the East Finals since the current playoff format was adopted in 1982 have rallied to win the series.

And clubs that have fallen behind 2-0 at any point during the Stanley Cup playoffs have managed only 51 series wins in 380 opportunities.

While these numbers may seem daunting, the Isles can’t get caught up in previous history when they hit the ice Friday night.

Instead, they have to get more than one or two pucks past Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 27 of 28 shots in Game 2.

“We had a couple of chances, but at the end of the day it’s about capitalizing on those chances,” said Isles defenseman Nick Leddy, who assisted on Martin’s early goal. “Obviously we didn’t do that.”

Other than the painful defeat itself, the Isles may have also lost forward Brock Nelson after he was knocked out of the game following a questionable high hit against the glass by Lightning center Alex Killorn in the first period and another blow to the head from Barclay Goodrow in the second.

“Obviously, we didn’t love [Killorn’s] hit on him,” Martin said. “The refs made the right call. And, yeah, we didn’t like the cheap shot cross-check to his head, either. Unfortunately, it is what it is. They missed that one.”

The Isles also took the officiating to task following Tampa’s equalizing goal by Victor Hedman with 1:35 left in the first period.

New York felt the Lightning were awarded an icing call despite a Tampa player touching the puck on the Isles’ dump-in moments before the tally.

“On the first goal, we were sure they tipped it, that’s why our bench was so upset, but there are things that are going to be missed and not called. You have to play through it,” Trotz said.

“It’s playoff hockey. If we win the faceoff, we’re not even talking about it.”

And if they can win Game 3 Friday night, the Isles will be right back in this series.

“This group has a lot of character, a lot of fight in them,” Trotz insisted.

The Islanders hope to have Brock Nelson back and healthy after he took a pair of big blows in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay. Photo: Chris O’Meara/AP

Isles Have Another: Despite sporting a gash on his face, Nelson, who ranks second on the team with 15 points during the playoffs, did address the media in regard to his status for Game 3 Wednesday. “I feel good,” he said. “I went through all the protocols and doctors did a good job with precautionary measures to make sure everything was good. Didn’t want to rush anything. Kind of felt like I was getting hit quite a bit, but that’s part of the game, just have to try to fight through it.” … Forward Cal Clutterbuck, who was questionable for Game 2 after taking a puck off his ankle in the series opener, managed to pay just over 10 minutes Wednesday and got off three shots on goal while delivering three hits. … Forward Andrew Ladd saw his first game action since March 10, the Isles’ last game before the COVID-19 shutdown. He dished out five hits in nearly 12 minutes of ice time. … Varlamov, who hadn’t started since Game 6 of the conference finals vs. Philly, made 19 saves in Game 2. … Game 4 is scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBC.

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