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The Islanders Couldn’t Fake It For 60

Sebastian Aho celebrates scoring
Katherine Gawlik/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was tough finding anyone who favored the New York Islanders over the Carolina Hurricanes before their first-round series. The Canes, aside from a little inconsistency at goalie, continued to be an exemplary NHL team this year, dominating possession of the puck and parlaying that control into the league's third-best goal differential. The Isles, meanwhile, always seemed to have something wrong with them, and it's surprising that they made it this far with the league's 22nd-best offense and 18th-best defense by goals for and against. If the Canes' bright idea is to shoot a lot and not get shot on, the Isles rely on a leap of faith: absorb a ton of pressure and pray that their netminder got a solid eight hours of sleep along with a balanced breakfast in the morning.

New York put up a tough fight in their 3-1 defeat in Game 1 Saturday, but the beginning of Game 2 gave fans the most stereotypical version of each team. While the Hurricanes peppered Semyon Varlamov in the early going, it took 13 and a half minutes for their own goalie, Frederik Andersen, to face his first shot. The difference in aggressiveness and talent was undeniable, and that's why, after the dust cleared with 16 minutes remaining in the second period, the scoreboard read—3-0 ISLANDERS?

You may never see stranger sight all playoffs, and here's how it happened: Andersen got clumsy trying to cover the puck after a Kyle Palmieri shot from close range, Bo Horvat nailed a one-timer 15 seconds before the intermission, and then the Canes' penalty kill gifted Anders Lee open space at the crease for him to maneuver the puck around his masked obstacle. With these plays, the Islanders, yes, led by three. But then the forwards hung up their sticks. The Canes amped up the intensity, taking shots by the bushel as they looked for a bounce to go their way. The Isles, on the other hand, were some combination of unwilling and unable to get the puck into the Carolina zone. They completely flatlined as they let the Canes dictate the terms of engagement, and through the entire third period Andersen was only challenged to make one stop.

"You’d like to be playing more in the offensive zone, for sure,” Brock Nelson said.

This tornado-drill strategy almost worked for the Isles. Teuvo Teräväinen earned a power-play goal in the second, and halfway through the third Seth Jarvis fired a shot past Varlamov on a play that again demonstrated how the Canes closed off opportunities for the Islanders to clear the puck. Those successes still made the score just 3-2 when Carolina pulled their goalie. But that's when the Islanders lost their grip. The 6-on-5 equalizer was too quick to stop—a 2-on-1 forecheck in the corner won by the Canes led to an Andrei Svechnikov one-timer that tapped off Sebastian Aho at the post. Nine seconds later, with the score and the number of skaters now even, the Canes ignited the building by yet again forcing a puck deep, then taking advantage of a confused Varlamov. The Isles goalie was looking to his right, and Jordan Martinook snuck up on the other side to poke the biscuit across the line. The empty-netter that followed made this a 5-3 win for a 2-0 Carolina lead in the series.

Normally, when a team leads for most of a game and then loses at the very end, you can call it a(n) (un)lucky break. But given how absurdly uneven the chances were on Monday night—which is of a piece with how both teams have played for most of the year—the burst of scoring at the end felt less like a fluke and more like a logical conclusion. The shock of Game 2 was not the comeback; it's that the Islanders were ever leading at all.

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