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Islanders take step in right direction in gritty OT win

NEW YORK -- Thomas Hickey admits he's not much of a fan of the National Hockey League's video challenge when one interrupts his hockey watching on off days.

Sunday night, though, Hickey was pretty much OK with the Islanders' decision to challenge an Aaron Ekblad goal in the second period that would have given the Florida Panthers a 3-0 lead.

Officials ruled, correctly, that Jonathan Huberdeau was offside as he carried the puck into the Islanders' zone on the play that led to the Ekblad goal.

From that point on, the narrative of Game 3 of this opening-round series turned on a dime. And after Hickey's game-winner at 12:31 of overtime gave the Islanders an improbable 4-3 victory and a 2-1 series lead, we'll find out if it changes the storyline of the entire series.

"I thought the turning point was the offside call," Hickey said. "You won't find me saying that too much. I don't enjoy watching those when I'm watching the game. They took their time and they got it right and our fans they just rallied and I think there was a life and energy on the bench that we got out of that."

You don't have to be much of a student of the game to understand that there's not much recent history of winning for either of these franchises.

There's a reason that people have referred to this series as the ugly stepchild of the eight first-round matchups.

The Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993 and the Panthers have not played in a second-round series since they advanced to the Stanley Cup final in 1996. In fact, the team has managed to qualify for the playoffs only three times since '96 before this playoff year.

We often talk about a culture of winning -- and we know it when we see it -- but it's a little more difficult to actually create one, especially when you are building from scratch.

Guys like Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy were brought into the Islanders' fold in part because they came from teams with winning traditions (Boston and Chicago, respectively).

Florida has Jaromir Jagr, Shawn Thornton (who played with Boychuk on Boston teams that won a Cup in '11 and went to the finals two years later), Brian Campbell and an injured Willie Mitchell.

Of course, creating a true winning culture comes from victory in moments when it appears as though winning isn't going to be in the cards. Moments like Sunday.

Twice now in this series, the New York Islanders have erased early Florida leads to win games.

"I think it's just a message we have," said Hickey, who also scored the goal that clinched the Islanders' playoff berth late in the regular season. "You go out and play. Jack talks about not playing the score or anything you go out and you play hockey, you play the right way," he added referencing head coach Jack Capuano.

The Panthers weren't happy with penalty calls after the overturned Ekblad goal that ultimately led to two power-play markers, helping to tie the score at 3 -- and you could quibble with those calls. But that ignores the bigger issue of what the Panthers are searching for -- those same elusive qualities that ultimately speak to winning, that make winning second nature.

It's still early in this series but so far those qualities remain elusive for the Panthers.

Just as the Islanders talked about their resiliency, their refusal to become discouraged at falling behind, the Panthers will mark this as a moment they failed to put their foot down and finish a job.

A winning culture is about not letting victories turn to dust in front of your eyes, which is what happened Sunday night to a Florida team that should be the one dictating the tone of this series given their skillset and the presence of veteran netminder Roberto Luongo and the absence of New York Islanders starter Jaroslav Halak.

But three games in, Islanders netminder Thomas Greiss, who played in his first NHL overtime game Sunday and won it by stopping 36 of 39 shots, is basically sawing off Luongo if not outplaying him, and that has changed everything.

A dejected Luongo admitted he was tired having played three games in four nights including an overtime session.

"I need rest," Luongo said. "I need a couple of days to re-energize here, get ready for Wednesday."

Funny how it goes, but three games into this series this might be one of the most compelling of the eight regardless of its profile or lack thereof.

Sunday, the Islanders took another step toward not just talking about a winning culture but creating one.

Now the question is whether the Florida Panthers have it in them to take a similar step as they face their second one-game deficit of this young playoff season.