(The Sports Xchange) - Thomas Hickey’s final goal of the regular season ensured the New York Islanders would return to the playoffs for the second straight season. His first career playoff goal put the Islanders another step closer to some place the franchise hasn’t been in 23 years.
Hickey scored with 9:29 left in overtime Sunday night to give the Islanders a 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Barclays Center.
The Islanders lead the best-of-seven series two games to one. Game 4 is scheduled for Wednesday night at Barclays.
“It’s a great feeling, you try not to get caught up in it,” said Hickey, who clinched a playoff spot for the Islanders on April 5 by scoring in overtime to end a 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals. “We got that one in Washington (to) clinch and we wanted to keep moving forward. It’s a big goal, but that game’s over and we’ve got a series to win here. Puts us in a good spot, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got two more wins to get. That’s going to be tough.”
Those wins have been impossible to get for the Islanders, who have not won a postseason series since they reached the Wales Conference finals in 1993 -- back when Hickey was four years old.
Hickey’s goal gave the Islanders a series lead after three games for just the second time in eight postseason series since 1994. New York led the Capitals two games to one in last year’s seven-game quarterfinal loss.
“It’s a different year and different team we’re playing, a little bit of a different team that we have in here,” Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “I think you’ve got to draw on those experiences. I think as a group we’re certainly a bit more mature.”
For a little while in the second period, it appeared as if the Islanders were in danger of going down two games to one in resounding fashion. The Panthers took a 1-0 lead in the first on Reilly Smith’s goal 2:25 into the game and doubled the lead when Alexsander Barkov scored just 1:11 into the second.
Florida appeared to take a three-goal lead at 3:57, when Aaron Ekblad fired a shot under goalie Thomas Greiss’ right shoulder. But Islanders head coach Jack Capuano used his replay challenge and it was determined Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau was offside on the play.
”Our video coach (Matt Bertani) did a great job calling that into us tonight,“ Capuano said. ”I think that was the turning point of the game. He radioed in right away.
“Down by two is a lot different than being down by three.”
Huberdeau said he thought he was offside as the play occurred.
“It’s one play in the game,” Huberdeau said. “You can’t say we lost because of that offsides.”
The successful challenge re-energized the sellout crowd of 15,795 that turned out to see the Islanders’ first playoff game at Barclays Center, where they moved to this season following 42 seasons at Nassau Coliseum. A pair of Panthers penalties within 25 seconds created a 5-on-3 that ended with Ryan Pulock scoring to cut the gap in half.
Nick Bjugstad scored just 2:02 later to again give the Panthers a two-goal lead, but the Islanders tied the game and sent the crowd into a frenzy when Shane Prince and Frans Nielsen scored twice in a span of 5:07 later in the period.
“The roof isn’t as old as the Coliseum, but it sounded like it was going to come off,” Hamonic said with a grin.
The loudest noise was saved for last, when Hickey took a pass from Brock Nelson, who was behind the net, and fired a shot between the legs of Roberto Luongo, who fell slowly on his back as Hickey’s teammates began to mob him.
“Hopefully bigger (goals) to come,” Hickey said. “Just shoot the puck in overtime. There’s never a bad shot.”
Greiss earned the win by recording 36 saves.
Luongo had 35 saves for the Panthers, who are 1-1 all-time in series in which they have trailed two games to one.
“It’s not like you came in here and got beat 7-1,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “We’re going to come back and we’re going to be confident.”