UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- After the buzzer blared, there was still plenty to sort out. Tangled limbs, heated words, and a pile of players still battling as an ecstatic Nassau Coliseum crowd looked on, relishing the final moments of the New York Islanders' 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 6.
Considering how physical and chippy this series has been, are we really that surprised that the two teams didn’t skate off with civility?
The entire afternoon was a bitter clash, one in which the hits were hard, the scrums were fierce and the game came down to the final period.
Fueled by Nikolay Kulemin’s critical, go-ahead goal at 10:33 of the third period, the Isles managed to force a Game 7 in Washington, D.C., and possibly prevent the Coliseum’s doors from closing, this being the old barn’s final postseason before the team relocates to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center next fall.
The team didn’t want the Coliseum going out like that.
“We love playing here. We love being a part of this atmosphere. We sure as hell don’t want that to come to an end,” said Matt Martin, who finished with a whopping, game-high 11 hits.
Martin’s fourth line was again a physical force in the team’s season-saving victory. Isles coach Jack Capuano threw them out for puck drop, and a flurry of checks induced an icing from the Capitals on the first shift of the game. But they weren’t the only ones engaged in the hard-nosed play, which went both ways.
In fact, it was John Tavares who got slammed into the end-boards midway through the third period by Alex Ovechkin in a meeting of the teams’ two biggest stars. Tavares was shaken and slow to get up, rendering everyone on the Islanders bench and the 16,170 in attendance rattled. Good thing Kulemin didn’t give up on the play. Instead, he deftly tallied the all-important go-ahead goal with 9:27 to play in regulation.
“It was a war zone in front of the bench there and I just realized I had a lot of room and
there was a lot more ice because of what was going on,” Tavares said.
When Kulemin exploited that space and scored, the goal seemed to perk Tavares up significantly.
“It’s a bit of a roller coaster, for sure,” Martin said. “You never like to see any of your players go down like that, but Kuley scored a big goal and Johnny got up and was already celebrating.”
Tavares had gotten the Islanders on the board in the first period, carrying the puck to the slot and sizzling a slick wrister past Caps goaltender Braden Holtby for a 1-0 lead at 6:56. But, as it has been in recent weeks, the final minute of play continues to be a white-knuckle stretch for New York and goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
So when Caps defenseman John Carlson beat Halak with 4.3 second remaining in the frame, there could’ve been a collective sag. Instead, the Isles came out of first intermission and kept pushing through a second-period that turned out to be a dogfight.
Even as an already decimated Islanders defense took another huge blow, when Matt Donovan was assessed a 10-minute misconduct with 1:36 remaining in the second period, the team did not let that weaken their resolve.
After the game, Donovan still seemed baffled by the call, which had him livid and slamming his stick against the glass as he was escorted off the ice.
“I literally have no clue why he gave me a 10-minute misconduct,” Donovan said.
The fact that Donovan and rookie Scott Mayfield filled in so capably for the Isles, who are already without blueliners Travis Hamonic, Lubomir Visnovsky and Calvin de Haan, was a major boost for the Islanders.
The Islanders’ big players stepped up, their young players held their own and Halak was strong in net, making 38 saves to help them keep their playoff hopes from being extinguished.
Capuano was proud to see his team respond with its back against the wall.
“They have that refuse-to-lose attitude. They’re a relentless team," Capuano said. “We respect them but we don’t fear anybody. ... We just keep coming. We’re not going away.”
And as the final horn indicated, there remains plenty of unfinished business in Game 7.
According to several players, the Islanders were not pleased with Carlson after the game. They felt he unleashed a slap shot against Halak after the buzzer had already sounded -- and weren’t happy with where he was aiming, either.
“I thought it was a couple seconds after the whistle. And it was high,” Tavares said. “[It] can hit someone, pretty dangerous once the whistle goes."
Frans Nielsen ended up on the bottom of the pile-up that ensued.
“We thought they shot it after the whistle there. Somebody jumped Okie from behind, and then everybody went in,” Nielsen said. “I didn’t see who was on top of me.”
Officials had to step in and separate the players, but they’ll meet again soon enough to hash out their differences.
And you can bet it will be an absolute slugfest to see which team advances to Round 2.
No one is surprised to see this one go the distance.
“You’ve got two very determined teams going nose-to-nose,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s a heavyweight bout, that’s what it is.”