Cal Clutterbuck is congratulated after his empty net goal. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New York Islanders weren’t going to go away easily on what could have been the last night at Nassau Coliseum. In Game 6, facing elimination, the Islanders threw the body, won battles for loose pucks and eventually broke through for a late game-winning goal to send the series to Game 7.
If Saturday afternoon’s contest between Washington and New York does go down as the final NHL game played at Nassau Coliseum, the hometown fans were treated to an incredible effort from their Islanders. And in the tradition of the once-dynastic Islanders, the game was fast, physical and ended with New York coming out on top.
Down 3-2 in a series that has been as aggressive and as heated as any in these playoffs, the Islanders came out and played the kind of game they needed to against the Capitals. Aside from a few small lapses, broken defensive plays and instances of undisciplined behavior, there weren’t many moments in Saturday’s tilt where it didn’t somehow feel as though Game 6 was going to fall in favor of the Islanders.
From the opening whistle, the Islanders were crashing full force into anyone wearing a white jersey and that continued for 60 minutes. Again, the fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck were absolute terrors, chipping the puck into the Washington zone and throwing thundering checks with reckless abandon.
Throughout the series, the Islanders grinding line has been one of the most effective, opening up space for the rest of the New York lineup and wreaking havoc on the Washington defensemen that have to turn back for loose pucks. That Clutterbuck, who had already managed a tally in Game 2, put the icing on the cake for New York in Game 6 with an empty-net goal was only fitting.
To get to Clutterbuck’s empty netter, though, it took more than two and a half periods for the Islanders to pull away for good.
John Tavares opened the scoring for the Islanders early in the first frame with pinpoint accuracy on a wristshot that came as the New York captain cut across the middle of the ice using the Capitals defenders as a screen. The goal, Tavares’ second of the post-season, stood as the only of the game until the dying seconds of the first frame when Washington defenseman John Carlson let go a shot from the blueline that somehow found the back of the net.
The second period was scoreless, but in the third, Tavares again got in on the action. This time, however, it was by chipping the puck in deep, creating pressure on the Capitals defense and sacrificing his body that led to the Islanders pulling away for good.
After putting the puck deep into the zone, Tavares took a vicious hit from behind from Alex Ovechkin, but the puck squirted back to defenseman Nick Leddy who found Nikolay Kulemin alone in front of the Capitals’ goal leading to the game-winning marker.
For New York, the ability to maintain a physical presence and play without fear of the punishment they’d have to take against a bruising opponent like Washington was key and will be as the two teams face off in Game 7. With a limited defense corps that’s depleted due to injury, the Isles have to focus on quick puck movement, offensive zone possession and zone exits. In Game 6, all three aspects of the Islanders game were on point.
Washington and New York are now set for the second Game 7 between the two clubs in NHL history. The previous seventh game in 1986-87, the famed Easter Epic, was won by the Islanders in the fourth overtime when Pat LaFontaine’s found its way past Captials goaltender Bob Mason.