Unlikely heroes the difference in Islanders-Panthers series

Alan Quine scored in the second overtime to give the New York Islanders the 2-1 win over the Panthers and 3-2 series lead.

SUNRISE, Fla. – Bushed, battered and punch-drunk, the Florida Panthers and the New York Islanders trudged late into the South Florida night in an epic Game 5.

In the most closely contested series in the Stanley Cup playoffs so far, a war of attrition even before Friday night’s epic double-overtime contest, it came down to key contributions from a few unlikely sources. Islanders defenceman Marek Zidlicky, who was making his first appearance of the postseason, made a nice fake from the point on a power-play opportunity. Zidlicky created some space and dished the puck to rookie Alan Quine – who was standing at the right circle.

For Quine, 23, he was playing in just his seventh career NHL game. He made his NHL debut less than two weeks ago. Asked after the game how many power-play shifts he’s played in his NHL career, he responded that he could count them on one hand.

That lack of experience didn’t stop the rookie forward from unleashing a bar-down slap shot that beat Roberto Luongo glove-side high. The goal gave the Islanders a 2-1 victory in Game 5 and a 3-2 series lead over a Panthers team that, frankly, has outplayed New York for most of the series.

As the series shifts back to Brooklyn for Game 6, the Islanders are going home – or are going back to their newly adopted home – with a chance to win their first Stanley Cup playoff series in a generation.

“I like the fact that he’s a reserved guy,” Jack Capuano said of Quine, whom he tasked with playing on the wing alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo in Game 5. “He’s a confident guy, he’s not nervous at all. And he’s not playing safe. That’s big for me.”

Quine is certainly confident. As his teammate Travis Hamonic poked his head into a post-game media scrum and jokingly described Quine as “the sniper”, Quine called the right circle from where he shot the game-winning goal his ‘wheelhouse’. His story was already unlikely, but now it has an exclamation point.

“It’s all been pretty fast, I’m trying to enjoy it,” Quine said of the past two weeks. “I haven’t really sat down to process it, but I’m just trying to play. Go every day, work, be ready.”

In some ways, Game 5 was a microcosm of this series. The Panthers out shot, out chanced and out possessed the Islanders at 5-on-5 and did so rather handily. Once again, video review played a crucial role in the outcome of the game. Once again, New York’s defensive layers were pulverized shift after shift by Florida’s top two forward lines.

And once again, Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss was somehow up to the task. The 30-year-old career backup had never started a playoff game going into this series. Now, after five games, Greiss has almost single-handedly carried the Islanders to the brink of advancing to the second round.

He’s managed this without ever seeming to have his heart rate elevate above the mid-70s. Even when he’s facing down an overtime penalty shot in the postseason, one gets the sense that Greiss is laid back. He’s as placid as a brick wall, and about as hard to put a puck through.

“I was surprised they called it there,” Greiss said of the referees awarding Aleksander Barkov an overtime penalty shot. “I always stick with the same gameplan on a penalty shot. And, I got it.”

The Islanders netminder said he wasn’t fazed at all by the stakes of an overtime penalty shot. Never mind that it was just the third overtime playoff penalty shot in NHL history, Greiss figures that he faces a couple of those every year in the regular season.

“You just try to read the play, be ready, get over there and be in good positions,” Greiss said of a particular save – an outstanding one – that he made off of Aaron Ekblad on a two-on-one.

Really, that’s the recipe that may yet power the Islanders past a Panthers side that genuinely seems to be more formidable. Greiss has been spectacular, the Islanders power play has delivered key goals, unlikely players like Quine and Thomas Hickey have stepped up in key moments and John Tavares has, when the chips are down, performed.

Though New York’s captain was held off of the score sheet for the first time in this series Friday, he drew two penalties during the two overtime periods. Drawing multiple penalties in overtime – where the officials may as well ritualistically swallow their whistles beforehand – is even more impressive, in some ways, than recording a hat trick.

It’s easy to overreact to the results of a high-leverage game, particularly a Game 5 in a tied series. The Panthers have performed well enough to advance though. It won’t take a lot of good fortune for them to force a Game 7 on home ice and they know it.

“Hopefully sooner or later we’re going to get some breaks,” said Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, who reiterated once again that he thought his team played well. “Greiss has been outstanding… He’s played solid, he’s got some breaks and they played hard tonight. The series has been unbelievably close and I think he’s played real good.

“There wasn’t much to give between the two teams.”

That’s been true all series and it has made for compelling hockey.

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