(The Sports Xchange) - It took the New York Islanders just shy of 23 years — 8,381 days, to be exact — to finally win a postseason series. They would like to wait only a couple weeks to win another one.
Islanders captain John Tavares cemented his status in franchise lore on Sunday, scoring in the final minute of regulation to force overtime and then scoring in the second overtime to give New York a 2-1 win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals at Barclays Center.
The Islanders’ third overtime win — and second double-overtime win in as many games — gave them a 4-2 series win. New York will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference semifinals later this week.
“We want to enjoy tonight, but we want to keep this thing going,” Tavares said. “We’ve got a special group. We believe we can do something special.”
The postseason series win is the first for the Islanders since 1993 — so long ago the NHL had just 24 teams and still went by traditional hockey names for its divisions and conferences.
The Islanders beat the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins — with the latter series concluding May 14, 1993 — that spring to emerge from the Patrick Division before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in the Wales Conference finals.
“It’s been a long time coming, honestly,” Islanders right winger Cal Clutterbuck said. “It’s just good to be the team that kind of allows people to enjoy the moment, to get over that hump.”
Clutterbuck said he and his teammates would revel in the moment as well — for a little while, at least.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Clutterbuck said. “We’re trying to win the Stanley Cup.”
For 59 minutes, it appeared as if the series would go to a decisive seventh game Tuesday night in Florida. Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau scored with 62 seconds left in the first period and goalie Roberto Luongo stopped the first 30 shots he faced.
With Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss pulled for the extra attacker, Matt Martin and Nikolay Kulemin fired shots that were turned back by Luongo. But he was sprawled face down on the ice as the puck skittered to his right and Tavares swooped in and put it home with 52.3 seconds left.
“He’s a star player in this league and he comes up big when he has to,” Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant said of Tavares.
Luongo made 15 saves during a first overtime in which the Islanders had plenty of chances to score the game-winner.
“It just felt the longer that game went on, the worse it was going to be for us, because I thought we were outplaying them,” Islanders right winger Kyle Okposo said.
Okposo helped end the game in the second overtime. As he skated down the right side of the ice, Okposo said he heard Tavares call for the puck. Okposo passed to Tavares, whose shot was deflected by Luongo.
But Luongo came out far to the right of the net to make the save. Tavares picked up the loose puck, skated around the back of the net and tucked it into the open left corner.
“Once he picked it up behind the net, I think I raised my hands,” Okposo said. “I kind of saw the whole play happening. It was pretty cool to have a front row seat to that.”
The goal set off a deafening celebration at Barclays Center, where the Islanders moved this season following 43 years at Nassau Coliseum.
“Euphoria — you can’t even really process it,” Tavares said. “It was obviously amazing to look around and see all the orange and blue (towels waving). Just incredible.”
The long-awaited series win comes in the final year before longtime owner Charles Wang cedes ownership to Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin.
“For us to get by that first round, it’s a proud moment for him - seeing him after the game and seeing how excited he was,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said. “It’s a good feeling for these guys.”
Greiss, who played all six games after entering this season with just one playoff appearance, made 41 saves.
Luongo made 49 saves for the Panthers, who now inherit the Islanders’ mantle as the longest-suffering team in the NHL. Florida, which won the Atlantic Division this season, has not won a postseason series since it reached the Stanley Cup in 1996.
The Panthers lost despite trailing for just 45:54 of the 439 minutes and 12 seconds the series lasted. They didn’t trail in Games 3 and 6 until allowing the game-winning goals in overtime.
“I thought we were in control of the series most nights,” Gallant said. I thought we were the better team most nights. The hockey gods weren’t with us.
“I’m giving the Islanders credit. They played a great game, played a great series. I thought we played a good series.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford