Islanders showing Lightning closing out series won’t be easy

The Islanders would have played all night and all morning if that’s what it took, but they were not going to go away. They were not going to take the skate of shame out of the Edmonton bubble. Not after this night. Not after this game.

Not yet.

So yes, there will be a Game 6 in Edmonton on Thursday and the Islanders will still be one loss away from extinction in the conference finals. That has not changed. But here is what has changed: The Islanders will be two victories away from the Stanley Cup final.

Thursday became necessary when the Islanders recorded a 2-1 victory on Jordan Eberle’s goal off Anders Lee’s two-on-one feed at 12:30 of the second overtime to narrow Tampa Bay’s series lead to 3-2.

It was a victory achieved through a full commitment to playing the full 200×85 from the first moment to the last, one in which the Islanders contained the Lightning as well as they have yet, and one that ended with the Islanders’ struggling top line coming through with its first five-on-five goal of the series.

“It’s the biggest one I’ve gotten in a long time,” said Eberle, who scored a power-play goal early in Game 1 of the series, but hadn’t been able to finish at five-on-five despite numerous chances around the net. “We’ve battled hard to get where we are and we’re not finished.”

They could have been. Could have been finished when Anthony Beauvillier was hit with a four-minute double minor for high-sticking Mikhail Sergachev at 18:37 of the third. But the Islanders weren’t done. They were just getting started, killing off the penalty while limiting the Lightning to two shots on five attempts, the heavy lifting done by penalty-killers Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, J-G Pageau, Cal Clutterbuck, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Andy Greene and Johnny Boychuk.

The match was contested in tight quarters. Through the first 80 minutes, the teams combined to block more shots (53, 28 by the Islanders) than they were able to get pucks through on net (49, 29 by Tampa Bay). But then the match began to open up. The pace somehow quickened. Chances developed.

Semyon Varlamov was on top of his game in the Islanders net and so, too, was Andrei Vasilevskiy at the other end. Indeed, it was Vasilevskiy who came up with the save of the night when he was able to get his glove up to deny Mat Barzal, in alone 5:50 into the first overtime.

Barzal did not score and still has not scored in this series. But No. 13 had his finest night and was irrepressible through 31:28 of ice time, strong on the puck, attentive off the puck, recording two shots on 10 attempts, seven of them blocked. And though Lee did not score, he did make the two-on-one winning feed, lugging it down the left side after Kevin Shattenkirk had essentially fanned at the right point.

There was more to Lee’s game than that one pass, the captain resolute in his battles and his work in the defensive zone. The Lightning sat Brayden Point, nursing a lower-body injury, and neither Ondrej Palat nor the ubiquitous Nikita Kucherov (five shots on 14 attempts in a game-high 36:19) scored.

So for this night: Islanders’ Top Guns 1, Lightning Big Boys 0.

Look, Tampa Bay still leads this series. Tampa Bay still needs one victory to advance to the final while the Islanders need two. Point will likely play in Game 6. The Lightning are 3-0 in this series when Point dresses.

But the Islanders are growing through this experience. They are 2-0 in potential elimination games, having survived both Game 7 against the Flyers in the last round and this Game 5. They won this one by going with 11 forwards and seven defensemen, the first time they had used that alignment since early in the regular season. You remember the regular season? You remember that training camp for 2019-20 began over one year ago?

And there is a dirty little secret about the Lightning, who seemingly have been on the cusp of a championship since taking out the Rangers in seven in the 2015 Eastern finals before losing the final to the Blackhawks.

That is, twice since then Tampa Bay has been within a victory of another trip to the final. But up 3-2 over the Penguins in 2016, the Lightning lost Games 6 and 7. And in 2018, up 3-2 in the conference finals, the Lightning were shut out back-to-back in Games 6 and 7 by Trotz’s Caps.

Now this. Five games over five years for the final. Five chances. Five losses.

And the Islanders are still here.

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