EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Even though the Tampa Bay Lightning seem to possess some overtime magic in the playoffs, this was not the the time for more hockey.
Losing leading scorer Brayden Point to injury and Alex Killorn to ejection and after going into the game with just 11 forwards, the Lightning played much of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final with nine. Extra minutes would have taken their toll against a New York Islanders team that responded in a big way from a series-opening blowout.
Instead of going into OT, Nikita Kucherov scored with 8.8 seconds left to break the tie and give Tampa Bay a 2-1 victory Wednesday night and a 2-0 series lead. The relief was visible on the bench as coach Jon Cooper pumped his fist three times, and the Lightning are now two wins away from the Stanley Cup final.
“Any goal is a good goal and a huge goal in the series, especially that one,” said Kucherov, who scored the near-buzzer-beater off a pass from defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “We were short (at forward), and we tried to play disciplined defensively and we knew our chances were going to come. We just had to wait and we got rewarded and definitely it was huge for us. We’ll take it.”
Tampa Bay won thanks to some timely scoring, 27 saves from Andrei Vaslievskiy and two big penalty kills. But the biggest question moving forward is the status of Point, who trails only Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon for the most points this postseason.
Point was injured going down awkwardly late in the first period, came back for two shifts in the second and then left the game for good.
“We all know the character of that kid and what a competitor and gamer he is,” Cooper said. “So for him not to come back, I know it was tough on him and clearly it was tough on us as well.”
This was a much tougher game to win for Tampa Bay than its 8-2 romp over New York on Monday night.
Two nights after Point scored 1:14 in, Matt Martin did the honors 1:24 in to give the Islanders the lead. A broken play helped defenseman Nick Leddy get behind the net, and he fed Martin for his fifth goal of the playoffs on a rare play in which Vasilevskiy lost sight of the puck.
Six minutes in, Killorn hit New York’s Brock Nelson into the glass from behind and was ejected and given a 5-minute major penalty for boarding. The Lightning killed the entire Islanders power play.
After Nelson returned later, Barclay Goodrow cross-checked him in the back of the neck, a play that went uncalled. Coach Barry Trotz called it “a little bit of a target to the head.”
“Obviously we didn’t love (Killorn’s) hit on him,” Martin said. “The refs made the right call. And, yeah, we didn’t like the cheap shot cross-check to his head, either. Unfortunately it is what it is. They missed that one.”
Norris Trophy finalist defenseman Victor Hedman scored to tie it late in the first, and there were no goals throughout the second into the third. The Islanders got a lengthy power play that included 38 seconds of 5-on-3 time, but Tampa Bay’s penalty kill stepped up again with McDonagh and Cedric Paquette in the box.
“Just a gutsy 5 on 3 there by the guys,” McDonagh said. “You never want to put your team down, especially late in the game. Between Vasy and all the killers, it was definitely the difference in the game.”
NOTES: Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov made 19 saves on 21 shots after getting the nod over Game 1 starter Thomas Greiss. … Andrew Ladd played his first playoff game since 2016 and first game of any kind since March 10, replacing Derick Brassard in the Islanders lineup. … Mitchell Stephens and Carter Verhaeghe are candidates to replace Point moving forward if he can’t play, and they may both play if Tampa Bay goes back to the traditional 12 forwards and six defensemen setup.
Game 3 is Friday night.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports