BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Over the course of a thrilling, extraordinary six-game series, the Florida Panthers carried the play and often outplayed their opponent. And in the end it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter because hockey is a weird game. In a fast, free-flowing sport where players change on the fly and ugly bounces or strange deflections are so often meaningful, individuals rarely exhibit any firm control over outcomes. That’s particularly true when half of the games in a playoff series are decided in sudden death overtime.
“In overtime in the playoffs anything can happen,” said Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck. “Anyone can score at any minute. It just sucks that it wasn’t us.”
Throughout the series, the New York Islanders didn’t seem to be able to consistently hit Florida’s fastball at 5-on-5. The territorial matchup was lopsided. New York needed more than their fair share of breaks, stellar goaltending, potent special teams and three overtime victories to overcome Florida’s edge in the run of play.
“I thought were were in control of the series most nights,” Panthers coach Gerrard Gallant said after the game. “I thought we were the better team most nights.
“And I don’t think the hockey gods were with us at all,” he added.
The Hockey Gods were cruel to the Panthers, it’s true, but you can’t exactly blame them for favouring the team with John Tavares, who played as if he were their representative on earth.
The 25-year-old Islanders captain scored both of his club’s goals in Sunday night’s 2-1 double-overtime victory. He had nine points in the six-game series. He effectively carried an otherwise overmatched team to victory.
“It’s hard to even believe it’s over,” Tavares told the media following the first playoff series win of his career. “Hard fought. Give Florida a lot of credit. That was a heck of a series.
“Every game was tight, and obviously to get over that hump, we’re looking forward to the next one,” continued Tavares. “Great to reward our fans, I know they’ve been waiting a long time. A lot of us have been here a while.”
It was certainly a long-time coming for the Islanders. The club drafted Tavares seven years ago, in the midst of an extended rebuilding phase. It’s been a generation – 23 years – since the club last won a playoff series. History was made on Sunday night in Brooklyn.
“That’s what you’re proud of: the guys,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said of his club in his post-game press conference. “We went through a rebuilding stage, as a young hockey club we went through some tough times.
“We knew eventually we’d get to this point,” he continued. “For them just to stay with it, I can’t be more proud of the group, led by our captain. It is fitting that he gets the tying goal and then just a great individual play off the rebound in overtime.”
Tavares’ two goals were marvels of hockey awareness and good fortune. The game-tying goal in particular seemed like a gift from the hockey gods.
Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo, who would’ve stolen the game had Florida come out on top, made a stunning, lunging save off of Islanders forward Nikolai Kulemin. Luongo was sure the puck was beneath him. His defencemen were sure the puck was beneath him.
The Barclays Center crowd was sure the puck was beneath him.
In a building filled with over 15,000, Tavares was perhaps the only soul that didn’t assume the play was dead. He found the puck in the blue and tied the game.
Tavares’ preternatural awareness made for a great play and a big moment. And it set up an even bigger goal 30 overtime minutes later, when the Islanders captain got a handle on his own rebound and used his league-best edge work to tuck the puck into the net on a wraparound.
It was a goal that Islanders fans won’t soon forget. And it was timely, because the Islanders captain could feel himself fading by that point.
“If that didn’t go in, my legs started cramping pretty hard in that pile,” Tavares said.
“When he went to shoot the first one I took a step out (to) challenge more and I think it ricocheted off our guy’s stick,” said Luongo of how the game-winner unfolded. “(I) kind of made the save but I was off balance so I wasn’t able to recover for the wraparound so you have to give him credit.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Luongo continued, addressing Tavares’ excellence. “And he pretty much won that series by himself.”
Luongo has been around a long time. He’s seen it all. And in this case, he’s absolutely right.
In a series in which no team recorded a single ‘clear victory’ and both goaltenders were superb, the Islanders won this series because they employ John Tavares and the Panthers don’t. Or at least they don’t yet.
Florida has some key young pieces who acquitted themselves very well this season. In Aleksander Barkov, 20, and Aaron Ekblad, 19, the Panthers have core pieces at crucial positions. They’re already formidable and their best days are ahead of them.
“I think anybody that knows hockey and knows our team, knows how good our young players are, and knows how good we’re going to be for the next number of years,” Gallant said.
At some point in the future, perhaps Ekblad and Barkov will have their Tavares moment. Tavares though, his time is now. He knows it and he delivered.
“I’m only 25, but I’ve been in the league seven years now, and we want to take advantage of this,” Tavares said of moving on to the second round. “I’m just trying to play my game and play hard, and when you get an opportunity, you want to put it in.”