There’s no phrase in playoff hockey more self-explanatory than “it’s a series now.”
And in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday afternoon in Edmonton, the New York Islanders will try to turn their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning into a best-of-three.
The Islanders earned their first conference finals victory in more than 27 years Friday night, when Brock Nelson scored the tie-breaking goal with 3:25 left in Game 3 to catapult New York to a 5-3 victory.
An empty-netter by Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the final minute not only ensured the Islanders wouldn’t get swept, it confirmed all elements of a competitive and entertaining playoff series were in place.
The Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov spent about 90 feet chasing Pageau and trying to poke the puck free. As Pageau closed in on the empty net, Kucherov slashed at the center’s legs. After the puck hit the back of the net, Pageau turned and shoved Kucherov to set off a melee behind the net that continued at the subsequent faceoff, when New York’s Matt Martin dropped the gloves with Tampa Bay’s Barclay Goodrow.
“He’s a competitor,” Pageau said of Kucherov. “I think he was trying to get his stick on the puck. Got the back of my leg a little too close.”
The fights represented a further escalation of tensions that began early in Game 2, when the Lightning’s Alex Killorn was ejected for boarding Nelson. Killorn was suspended for Game 3.
“Obviously, whenever you play a playoff game, you don’t like your opponent,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said Friday night. “You’ve got to be hard on him. You’ve got to take the puck away from them and score goals. We’re doing that by hitting them, playing physical, playing fast.
“I don’t know if it’s a rivalry. But they don’t like us, we don’t like them.”
The Lightning would surely like to turn back the momentum generated by the Islanders over the previous two games. Tampa Bay cruised to an 8-2 win in Game 1, but New York took the lead 84 seconds into Game 2 and didn’t trail until Kucherov scored the game-winning goal with 8.8 seconds remaining.
On Friday, the Lightning overcame a two-goal third-period deficit to tie the game when Tyler Johnson scored with 7:56 left, but they never led and gave up the go-ahead goal following a turnover in the New York zone by defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
“We were our own worst enemy,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s so many good things that our team did, but it’s such a tough league to win in and we handed that one to them. That was gift-wrapped.”
The Islanders didn’t need the feisty final seconds of Game 3 to understand the Lightning won’t hit the ice in a giving mood Sunday.
“I think Game 2 gave us the confidence that we could win Game 3,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said Saturday afternoon. “We’re going to get their best game (Sunday) and we’ve got to have our best game. You’re in a position to get it to a best-of-three. The opposition doesn’t want that. They’re going to do everything to prevent us from doing that.”
Lightning center Brayden Point and Islanders center Casey Cizikas both missed Game 3 with undisclosed injuries. Neither Cooper nor Trotz provided updates Saturday afternoon.