For the second straight year, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced off against the New York Islanders for the rights to play for the greatest trophy in sports. Last year was a pretty memorable series, capped off with an electrifying overtime goal from Anthony Cirelli in game six. This year, however, six games would not be enough. This battle raged on through seven hard fought games, culminating with Andrei Vasilevskiy’s fourth straight series clinching shutout. The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs have had some outstanding series, but none as back and forth and chock full of everything you’d want from a playoff matchup as this one. You like close games? We had plenty. You like blowouts? Look no further. You like physicality? This series was brutish. You like world class talent? Both teams had it in their own right. If last years matchup was one you look back on as one of the best in recent memory, you’ll remember this years matchup for years to come.
It started in the same place it would end, a sold out Amalie Arena on a beautiful Tampa summer night. Mat Barzal and Brayden Point continued their heaters into round three, but a early third period goal from Ryan Pulock would be the difference in game one, as Semyon Varlamov out dueled fellow Russian goaltender Vasilevskiy in the 2-1 Islanders victory. The Bolts got a real taste of what it was going to take to win this series from this loss, and they faced their first series deficit since dropping game one of the 2020 Cup Final to Dallas. They would need a huge answer in game two or else they’d be chasing an Islanders team that built its’ identity around protecting leads.
And answer they did. After coming out of period one of game two tied at one goal a piece off the back of Point’s playoff leading tenth goal, Tampa would rattle off three straight including Victor Herman’s first of the playoffs to answer the Isles game one victory with an identity win of their own. The officiating was a big talking point after Point was penalized for goaltender interference after being pushed into Varlamov by Adam Pelech. Barzal would continue his point streak as well with a goal before the game ended 4-2 in favor of Tampa, and the series was tied at one game a piece headed back to a raucous Nassau Coliseum.
Game three was another tight checking affair that was decided by, you guessed it, a Brayden Point goal. His eleventh of the playoffs extended his goal scoring streak to six games on a night where Mat Barzal didn’t have an answer. The Isles fourth line was the only one to break through and with no goals scored in period three, Tampa takes the series lead. Then, they made the mistake of getting comfortable with a lead against the New York Islanders.
With the barn rocking for game four, the Islanders kept it scoreless in the first period, then they exploded with three second period goals, a snipe from Josh Bailey, another goal from Barzal, and Matt Martin’s first of the playoffs. It seemed as if the game was over going into the third, but Brayden Point had other ideas, as he scored again for the seventh straight game, putting him on the brink of making playoff history. Tyler Johnson scored three minutes later with a snipe of his own to make it a one goal game with fourteen minutes to play in the third. Chances were exchanged back and forth, and then, with time winding down, Tampa D Ryan McDonagh toe dragged a diving Islander, had Varlamov out of position, and he pulled a spinning backhand that was destined for the back of the net to send the game to overtime, but it wouldn’t go. Ryan Pulock had gone down to the ice in the crease to block the shot at the goal line, time expired, and the Coliseum erupted. He was mobbed by his teammates the same way a goalie would be after an outstanding performance. You can bet the fan store sold a few Pulock jerseys that night, and Varlamov still owes him dinner.
Back in Tampa for game five, things unraveled quickly for the Islanders. Steven Stamkos scored for the first time in a long time just 45 seconds into the game, and the Bolts never looked back. They closed out period one with a three goal lead, and then doubled that in period two, with Stamkos and Alex Killorn both sitting on a pair of tucks. Point scored a goal for the eighth straight game in period 3 tying the record for the second longest goal scoring streak in the playoffs. Here are some other guys to score in eight straight playoff games: Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Jean Beliveau, and Maurice Richard. Pretty good, right? Luke Schenn would score before the final buzzer and the Isles drop game five in humiliating fashion by a score of 8-0. It’s not always a good idea to humiliate a team like the Islanders though.
The series returned to beautiful Nassau County (sarcasm) for game six. Just under a minute in, Scott Mayfield blatantly cross checked Nikita Kucherov in the spine right under his padding in front of referee Chris Lee, and there was no call on the play. Kucherov would then leave the game with an undisclosed injury, and many thought it had aggravated his hip injury that had kept him out of the regular season. The Islanders appeared to be dictating play after that, and then, knock knock, who’s there? Brayden Point. His ninth straight game with a goal to be exact, giving him sole possession of second place in the history books. Tampa had now scored eleven straight goals going into period two. If you’re someone who believes history repeats itself, you might have thought the series was over when Tampa’s goal streak was extended to twelve by Anthony Cirelli, last year’s game six overtime hero. Instead, the Islanders simply had enough of Tampa having all the fun. Jordan Eberle scored a nasty goal on the backhand from the high slot as the Tampa player defending him was hauled down with a hook that went unnoticed by the referees. Then, with time winding down in period two, Mayfield once again cross checked a player in the numbers, this time Steven Stamkos, and he went face first into the boards. Something that, according to NHL rule 59.4, warrants a match penalty and game misconduct. Instead, the teams started period three skating 4 on 4. I’ll get back to the referees in game seven. Just over midway through period three the game would be tied by, guess who, Scott fucking Mayfield. Yes, the guy that should have been ejected from the game. Can’t make this shit up. Anyway, the Islanders would force overtime, and Anthony Beauvillier would blow the roof off of Nassau Coliseum for the last time as he scored just over a minute into OT. It would be the final NHL game played at the Coli, and it couldn’t have been any more Nassau County as beer cans rained down from every section of fans, littering the ice with garbage as the Islanders celebrated their win to force a game seven. Just picturesque stuff from the Islanders fans, the pinnacle of class.
And that brings us to game seven. Back in Tampa, Florida on a beautiful summer night. What more could you ask for? Maybe an effort worthy of the Prince of Wales Trophy. That’s exactly what the Lightning had in store. Nikita Kucherov was back in the lineup, later saying there was no way he’d miss a game 7. They stifled the Islanders in period one, allowing very few chances in their end and running them up in Varlamov’s end of the ice. The Islanders netminder, who was just outstanding through the entire playoffs, had the answer for the time being. With a goose egg still on the board a minute into the second period, the referees actually had the balls to call a cross checking penalty (yes, a CROSS CHECKING PENALTY) on Barclay Goodrow. I really want to hammer that point home because what happens next is just pure karma for the Islanders getting away with dangerous cross checks all playoffs long and then getting a power play for the same infraction. With Tampa on the penalty kill, Cirelli (correct, 2020 game six OT Cirelli) curled back with the puck in the corner of the Islanders end and found Yanni Gourde streaking to the slot and put it right on his tape. It was back off of his tape faster than you can say “Chris Lee is the worst NHL official of all time” and in the back of the net. Short handed goal, 1-0 Tampa bay. And that would do it. Tampa put on a 5 on 5 defensive clinic and Andrei Vasilevskiy did the rest. Brayden Point wasn’t able to extend his goal scoring streak to ten games to tie the record, but he can still become the first player to lead the playoffs in goals in consecutive years since Jari Kurri in 1988. The Bolts punch their tickets to Montreal, and the Islanders, for the second straight year, couldn’t find a way past the Lightning.
If you’ve paid attention to other blogs I’ve posted here, you know I’m a Rangers fan. You know I hate the Islanders. You might have even seen my blog entitled “The Islanders are not Contenders.” I stand by that statement, as much as I know you’ll try to sway me. I don’t think they truly deserved to go as far as they did this year. But that doesn’t change anything. They were a final four team, and in a way, I’m sorta glad they were. This series was peak NHL playoffs. I can only hope the cup finals are half of the series that this one was. It was an emotional roller coaster that had something for everyone. It was the best series of these playoffs so far and I’ll remember it for years. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve been so emotionally invested in a series that didn’t involve my favorite team, and that’s all I can ask out of the NHL playoffs at this point. Now I’m going from praying the Bolts win, to hoping they lose, because I want to see Carey Price get his name on the cup like he deserves oh so much, and I love Cole Caufield like a son and I don’t know why. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Philip Danault crushing slices of what I can only imagine is extremely sub par Montreal pizza one more time. (Don’t talk to me about pizza if you’re not from NYC or Long Island.) I also hope to God the province of Quebec decides to allow fans to fill the stands in the Bell Centre.
Regardless of what happens next, the NHL is back. No more stupid playoff bubble, players’ families are back at the games, fans are back in the buildings, and a Canadian team has a shot at the country’s first title since 1993. You know how long ago that was? Nirvana was still touring and the first Jurassic Park just came out. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky probably hadn’t even met yet. THAT long ago. I’m thrilled for the Canadiens and I’m thrilled I don’t have to watch the Islanders anymore. The lights have been turned off for good on Nassau Coliseum, and we’re not going to Borelli’s. Here’s to a great Stanley Cup final, and I know I like to give the Islanders a hard time, but I gotta thank them for making the last two weeks absolutely bananas for me as a hockey fan. I seriously thought they were winning the cup if they got through Tampa. I wonder where Kyle Palmieri signs this off-season?