In less than a minute, the Islanders’ Stanley Cup dreams turned into a nightmare.
After dominating the Hurricanes for the first 40 minutes Sunday in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinals, the Isles gave up two goals in 48 seconds at the start of the third period and fell 2-1 at Barclays Center. They trail the best-of-7 series 2-0, and must find a way to rebound Wednesday in North Carolina, where the Canes have yet to lose a playoff game this postseason.
Carolina’s Nino Niederreiter deflected a shot from the point for the eventual game-winner, after winger Warren Foegele beat the usually steady Robin Lehner with a wrist shot inside the left post from the right circle 17 seconds into the third period.
“Every moment counts and we weren’t that sharp,” said Isles defenseman Ryan Pulock of the game-deciding flurry. “They got some momentum (with the first goal), then got another and now we’re chasing the game.”
It was the rookie’s fifth goal of the playoffs.
“It was a pretty good shot but I should have saved it,” said Lehner, who gave up more than one goal in a game for the first time since the first-round opener against the Penguins.
More worrisome for the Islanders is the lack of offensive production against the hard-forechecking Canes. They outshot Carolina 27-18 but the only goal they have managed in the series was deflected past goalie Petr Mrazek by his defenseman Jaccob Slavin on a centering pass from Mathew Barzal during a power play midway through the first period.
Mrazek, who blanked the Isles for the 1-0 OT win in Game 1, was forced to the bench early in the second period with an apparent leg injury. The Canes also lost defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk minutes into the game on a hard hit by Cal Clutterbuck, who himself was forced out by injury later in the game.
That still wasn’t enough to get the Isles their first playoff win at Barclays since eliminating Florida in the first round in 2016. Journeyman backup Curtis McElhinney, playing for the first time in a month and with just two career postseason appearances, replaced Mrazek and stopped all 17 shots he faced.
Anders Lee had a chance to force overtime in the final minute after the Isles pulled Lehner for the man advantage, but his stuff attempt hit the outside of the post. The effort came after Pulock’s shot hit the crossbar.
“I had an opportunity to put it in the back of the net at the end of the game and couldn’t do it,” the dejected Isles captain said.
The Isles had plenty of other good chances. Jordan Eberle, who got the assist on Barzal’s goal, rang the crossbar in the third after a steal in the high slot and watched helplessly as the puck hit the back of McElhinney and lay temptingly in the crease before being cleared.
The Islanders also had a goal overturned for the second straight game after Devon Toews’ back flick with his skate as he crossed the Canes’ goal line squirted through McElhinney’s pads with 13 seconds left in the second period.
Before fans at the soldout Barclays returned from their bathroom breaks and beer refills after the second intermission, the outlook for the Isles’ playoff run drastically changed.