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On Sunday night in Brooklyn, John Tavares scored a beautiful, wraparound, backhand game-winning goal in double overtime as the Islanders finished off the Panthers and moved on to the second round with a 2–1 win and 4–2 series win. For the first time in 23 years, the Isles have advanced beyond the first round, ending the second-longest postseason drought in NHL history.
Tavares also scored with 53.2 seconds in regulation left to force overtime, while goalie Thomas Greiss again played well with 41 saves. Jonathan Huberdeau scored a goal, while Roberto Luongo made 49 saves for Florida. The Islanders will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
Here are three thoughts on Sunday’s game.
Johnny on the spot
The Islanders have had some pretty fantastic players in their franchise history: Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Billy Smith and Bobby Nystrom, among others. Tavares has put himself on the list of franchise legends and he's still only 25. He's already established himself as a clutch playoff performer; he has 20 points in 19 career playoff games, including three game-winners. His third-period goal was vintage Tavares and only adds to the legend. And then his unreal wraparound goal was even better. To think, the Islanders were just under 54 seconds away from a Game 7 in Florida. As the puck squeezed out of Luongo’s pads, nobody noticed it lying there on the ice ... except Tavares, who pounced and poked it home. With 207 goals and 264 assists in seven NHL seasons, Tavares, the first pick in the 2009 draft, doesn’t get the widespread credit he deserves and is rarely mentioned among the game’s best players. He is. In a few years, he might be the best. Pair him with an elite winger and he will be the best.
The Islanders might have the best fourth line in hockey in Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin. They hit, they generate chances and they create energy. They had a couple of dominant shifts in the third period of Game 6. None produced goals and the trio was held scoreless in the series. Therein lies the problem for the Islanders going forward against the Lightning and possibly beyond. New York's best line is Tavares-Kyle Okposo-Frans Nielsen (sometimes Game 5 hero Alan Quine in inserted), with those four players accounting for 22 points in the six games against Florida. The Isles' other nine forwards produced a total of eight, so New York is going to need much better production from lines two through four in order to beat the defending Eastern Conference champions, who are backstopped by Ben Bishop, one the league's elite goaltenders. Fortunately, the backline packs some punch, but to count on Tavares and his linemates to carry most of the weight is to live very dangerously.
The other defenseman
Aaron Ekblad gets all the attention on the Panthers' blue line, and he’s a terrific talent. The 20-year-old plays with savvy that belies his age. But Florida's next-best defenseman is another high draft pick who’s finally coming of age. In 2010, the No. 3 pick in the draft was Erik Gudbranson. He went ahead of future impact players like Ryan Johansen and Jeff Skinner. And it took the 6' 5" blueliner some time to find his game in the NHL. But during the Islanders series, Gudbranson stood out. He’s mean and nasty, skates well and is usually in the right position. And although he missed an open net in the first overtime, Gudbranson is a 24-year-old restricted free agent after this year. The Panthers will surely give him what he's worth and allow him to continue grow along with this promising team’s young core.