EDMONTON — His will be a career measured by moments more than numbers.
Jordan Eberle just has that sporting je ne sais quoi where he’s completely at ease with the game on his stick. You don’t pull a world junior championship out of the fire while playing for Team Canada on home ice or bury a puck like this in your NHL debut without having a hunger that matches your sense of occasion.
And what an occasion Eberle found himself with as the New York Islanders battled to extend their season here on Monday night. They were 51 days deep inside the NHL battle and into a fifth period against a strong Tampa Bay Lightning team when Eberle spotted his window of opportunity.
Kevin Shattenkirk fanned on a shot that sent Anders Lee and Eberle down the ice on a 2-on-1 and when the Islanders captain sent the puck across the ice you just knew the game was over.
“That’s the biggest one in a long time, for sure,” Eberle said of his goal that pushed the Eastern Conference Final to a sixth game.
It was made more impressive by the fact things hadn’t really been going in his favour. Barry Trotz began a must-win Game 5 by breaking up his top line of Lee, Eberle and Mathew Barzal because they hadn’t been producing.
Eberle had one goal in the last 15 games before saving New York’s season.
Trotz noted that the 30-year-old winger tends to be hard on himself during dry periods like that, but apparently it’s not overridden by his ability to meet the moment.
That’s part of why the great scout Lorne Davis, who lived down the street from Eberle in Regina, insisted that the Edmonton Oilers use the 22nd pick in the 2008 draft to take him. No matter what the circumstances are, he wants to be the difference-maker.
What should not be lost in New York’s 2-1 victory is that the winning goal came in the 93rd minute on the Islanders’ 24th shot. There weren’t going to be many chances to win this with the way that team plays. And you probably couldn’t ask for a better player to get a free look under these circumstances than Eberle.
“I think it’s just demeanour,” said Trotz. “You’re absolutely 100 per cent correct about him scoring big goals. Everything from the world junior to all those things, he’s scored a number of big goals.
“I think he just enjoys those moments.”
All these years later and Eberle is still scoring big goals in Edmonton.
Down 3-1 to the Lightning entering the night, Trotz told his team to go out and play in a way that guaranteed they wouldn’t have any regrets. They are the first team in NHL history to win three rounds in order to reach the conference final and have consistently been overlooked or left for dead while doing so.
And yet they are one of three teams still living inside the JW Marriott while 28 others are comfortably at home.
Tampa arguably had the better chances to end Game 5 and definitely spent more time in the offensive zone beyond regulation. But the Islanders buckled down and refused to give in.
“The boys battled hard tonight,” said Eberle. “We had some moments in the D-zone and especially in overtime, where we had a broken stick and collapsed and just held on. Just waiting for our chance.”
Of course it was Eberle who froze the clock at 12:30 of double overtime. He didn’t hesitate on a shot that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy low glove.
That sent the Islanders players into delirium at Rogers Place, with goalie Semyon Varlamov diving head-first into the celebration pile.
“When we scored that goal it was just a lot of emotions going through me in that moment,” said Varlamov. “I was just so happy for the guys and so happy for us, that we have a chance to continue to play.”
Eberle credited Lee for a clean pass and the play that led to the odd-man rush. He didn’t elaborate on why he always seems to be the guy who scores that goal.
“You just want to be in the opportunity, but first you’ve got to have the opportunity to do it,” said Eberle. “This team’s battled hard to get to where we are and we’re not finished.”
Because he’s on their team.