WASHINGTON – The New York Islanders season ended on Monday, a Game Seven that was tense and tight but simply not their best effort.
It was a brain cramp by all five skaters that allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to walk through the slot and beat Jaroslav Halak for the winner with 7:18 to go, a 2-1 heartbreaker for the Isles in which Halak stood tall but his teammates fell flat at the wrong time, mustering only 11 shots on net.
The Islanders needed to find something in the third period and, after a couple of good shifts to open the third, they got a break. Frans Nielsen’s change-of-pace shot off the rush trickled through Braden Holtby’s legs at 3:13, tying the game and putting some tension into the building. It was the Islanders’ ninth shot of the game.
But the Isles could not accelerate their play and it became a cautious Game Seven once more, allowing the Caps to gather themselves and push the play again.
Halak made a miracle save on Jay Beagle after a Caps dump-in took a funny bounce off the glass, getting his pad and blocker on Beagle’s try into a seemingly empty net.
However, Halak was helpless as Kuznetsov got the puck along the side wall in the Islanders zone and walked into an empty slot. All five Islanders were otherwise occupied and Kuznetsov waited, then snapped a shot over Halak.
Kyle Okposo had a great chance with five minutes to go, but his shot from the slot went high and wide.
The Islanders got the game’s only power play with 2:54 left, a chance to save their season and break their 0-for-the series power play slide. They didn’t get a shot on goal.
Much as they had in the first period, the Islanders were hanging onto a scoreless tie for dear life in the final minutes of the second. The Caps didn’t overwhelm the Isles as much as in the opening 20 minutes, but the puck seemed impervious to leaving the Islanders zone for long stretches as the Caps cycled down low with their forwards and had their defense active and swinging down from the blue line, further muddling the Isles’ defensive-zone structure.
And it finally caved. Ovechkin sent a cross-ice pass to Brooks Orpik at the point for a shot. Halak stopped it and the puck lay between the goaltender’s legs. Johnny Boychuk was standing there too, and he fell over Halak’s right pad to leave the puck sitting in plain view long enough for Ward to shove it underneath Halak and slowly over the goal line with 1:25 left in the second.
The Verizon Center erupted after a few aborted eruptions on close calls over the first 38-plus minutes.
The Islanders nearly answered right away, with Mikhail Grabovski unable to corral a rebound off Holtby’s pads right out to hit 10 feet away. Grabovski’s fumbled attempt went harmlessly off Holtby’s pad, just the seventh shot on goal for the Islanders through two periods, a season-low total.
Coach Jack Capuano shuffled his forward lines to try and get something, anything going in the middle of the second, putting Cal Clutterbuck on John Tavares’ right, among other changes. Those moves briefly sparked a minute or so of sustained forecheck and offensive-zone possession, but not enough danger to make the Caps sweat. And certainly not enough shots on goal.
And that was still an improvement over the first period. There were no goals, but there was a tone set and it was dictated by the Caps.
Capuano sent out his effective fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Clutterbuck to open the game; Barry Trotz countered with his fourth line of Curtis Glencross, Brooks Laich and Tom Wilson. And for the first time in the series, Washington’s fourth line held the advantage.
Halak turned aside a good chance on the opening shot just 20 seconds in, from Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. Halak then denied Wilson from in close, a sign of things to come in a lopsided first period. The Islanders were outshot 11-3 and didn’t record a shot on Holtby for the final 15:33 of the period.
Halak, meanwhile, was living up to the reputation he carved out five springs ago as a big-game player. He turned aside a slapper from Mike Green later in the first, then got a pad on Jason Chimera’s rebound try as Chimera parked alone to Halak’s right.
The Islanders escaped that first period unscathed thanks to Halak, but they needed a more forceful second period to erase it. That didn’t happen either, leaving things to the very last minutes for the Islanders to extend their season.