Where there were answers, now there are questions.
Where there seemed certainty, now there is doubt.
Where there had been breathing room, now there is pressure.
A night we thought would end with fans at an Amalie Arena watch party celebrating the Lightning’s return to the Stanley Cup final concluded instead with Islanders fans throwing beer cans on to the ice after their team extended its season with an improbable 3-2 victory Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum.
A winner-take-all Game 7 will be played Friday in Tampa.
If Tampa Bay doesn’t change something quick, its Stanley Cup defense will end there.
The Lightning had clinched three straight series with shutout victories and appeared on their way to another when they held a 2-0 lead with six minutes remaining in the second period.
But the Islanders pushed, and the Lightning didn’t push back.
Mathew Barzal, whose status was in question after he cross-checked Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta in the face Monday, seemingly had the puck on his stick for the final period-plus Wednesday, shaking defenders much as he did a possible suspension. He assisted on Jordan Eberle’s goal with 5-1/2 minutes remaining in the second period with a nice drop pass in the slot, then set up Scott Mayfield’s tying goal with less than nine minutes left in regulation by skating to the middle, drawing three players to him, before dishing to Mayfield in the right circle.
The Islanders didn’t waste any time ending the game once they got it to overtime, as Anthony Beauvillier scored on the first shot of the extra period after Blake Coleman turned over the puck in front of the Lightning net while trying to get it to Rutta.
Where was the Tampa Bay team that has made a habit of closing out games the past two postseasons?
What was Coleman thinking?
Where was Andrei Vasilevskiy when things broke down in front of him?
Will Nikita Kucherov be on the ice when his team faces elimination for the first time this season?
And will the Lightning bounce back from the loss as they’ve done so many times before?
Lots of questions, few answers.
Grade: D, for didn’t think we’d be in this situation
Here is how we ranked the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 6:
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Brayden Point scored in his ninth straight playoff game, his first-period goal putting him within one of matching Reggie Leach’s all-time NHL record for goals in consecutive playoff games, set with the Flyers in 1976.
The Islanders tried to relieve pressure in their zone by rimming the puck around behind their net, but Point sealed off the boards, keeping the play alive for Anthony Cirelli. Cirelli put a shot on net from low in the left circle, and Point beat Adam Pelech to the rebound, kicking the puck to his stick before backhanding a shot into the net.
Point will score in Game 7. Of that, we are certain.
Nikita Kucherov, the NHL’s leading playoff scorer with 27 points, played all of 46 seconds in the first period before leaving with an injury.
Kucherov went to the locker room after checking the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal in the Lightning defensive zone. Kucherov was visibly laboring after the hit, but the injury likely occurred earlier in the shift when he was cross-checked from behind by Mayfield at the other end of the ice.
Only Wayne Gretzky has had more assists over consecutive postseasons than the 49 Kucherov has handed out over the 2020 and 2021 playoffs, so there’s no silver lining here.
Mitigating the damage might be the fact the Lightning played the entire regular season without Kucherov as he recovered from hip surgery. Plus, Tampa Bay regularly played 11 forwards on its way to winning the Stanley Cup last season, so its forwards are used to playing with a lot of different linemates.
But make no mistake. This was a big loss.
The Lightning power play has overshadowed the penalty kill for much of the postseason because it has scored at such a ridiculously high rate. But it was the penalty kill that bailed out the power play in the second period.
When Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev picked up penalties less than a minute apart in the period, Tampa Bay went from a power play to a two-man disadvantage — after some 4-on-4 and 4-on-3 play — with two of its penalty-killing defensemen sitting in the box.
Ryan McDonagh did an outstanding job of closing off shooting lanes on his side of the ice, and Rutta was equally strong on the other side as the Lightning killed off both penalties. Vasilevskiy did his part, as well, getting a piece of a Kyle Palmieri shot from the left circle and stopping a one-timer from Ryan Pulock.
With Kucherov out of the game, Tyler Johnson, Gourde and Steven Stamkos saw time alongside first-line forwards Point and Ondrej Palat. But Cirelli might have been most effective in the role.
He made an immediate impact, assisting on Point’s first-period goal and scoring one of his own in the second, his fourth of the playoffs and first of the series.
Palat sprung him on a breakaway with a nice stretch pass, and Cirelli skated low in the left circle before firing a shot between the legs of goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
Cirelli was a factor every time he was on the ice, contributing two points, playing a big role on the penalty kill, winning 50 percent of his faceoffs and blocking a shot in 18:22 of ice time.
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