By Lenn Robbins
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper was lamenting the challenge the Islanders top line presents, even if Anders Lee, Jorden Eberle and Matt Barzal have been held in check for most this Eastern Conference Finals series.
Cooper said that line is a pain to play against.
Which means the Islanders thrilling 2-1 win in double overtime Tuesday night must have really stung the Lightning coach, who has dismissed the pride of Long Island as a nuisance more than a legitimate threat throughout the series.
It was Lee who slid a cross-ice pass to a wide open Eberle who easily beat Andrei Vasilevskiy at 12:30 of the second overtime. Vasilevskiy’s counterpart, Semyon Varlamov, was so excited he did a full body forward slide from the red line into the mass of celebration swarming Eberle.
“Our guys didn’t waver,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “We kept grinding and grinding. You can get some energy from [a win like this], no question. We’ve had some heartbreakers, three overtime [losses] to Philadelphia. We lost a game late here. But we don’t give up. That’s a good sign for going forward and it gives some good energy, hopefully, for the next game.”
And there will be a next game. Game 6 is Thursday night in Edmonton’s Rogers Place. The days of thinking that a team down 3-1 is toast is over. Just ask the Denver Nuggets who have twice rallied from such deficits on their run to the Western Conference Finals.
The Islanders remain the team that must play desperate hockey to stay alive but the Lightning might be feeling a little desperate themselves. They are now 2-8 in conference finals clinchers having dropped five straight since 2016.
The NHL has seen 30 teams come back from 3-1 deficits in best-of-seven series, more than in Major League Baseball and the NBA combined. The Islanders have done it twice, in 1975 against the Penguins (trailed 3-0) — and in 1987 against the Capitals.
This, of course, guarantees nothing. The Lightning played without star Brayden Point Tuesday night, just as they were without him in the Islanders 5-3 win in Game 3. He is expected to play in Game 6. If the 6th-seeded Islanders win, all the pressure shifts to the 2nd-seeded Lightning, who were a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup.
“We’ve worked too hard,” Trotz said he told his team before the Game 5 win “Let’s not have any regrets.”