The Islanders would have been pleased to accept a game-winning goal from anyone dressed in blue on Friday night, what with their season on the brink and their two-goal third-period lead having been squandered.
But if they had taken a vote for a preferred candidate, it likely would have been Brock Nelson, which made his score with 3:25 remaining in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning particularly sweet.
Not only did it help secure a 5-3 victory that gave the Islanders their first win of the series, but it was redemption for two cheap shots in Game 2 on Wednesday that resulted in blows to Nelson’s head.
The first came on a hit delivered by Alex Killorn that sent Nelson into the glass and then to the dressing room for an examination — and which also earned Killorn a five-minute major penalty, a game misconduct and a one-game suspension.
The second came shortly after Nelson returned to the ice, when Barclay Goodrow cross-checked him in the back of his head but was not penalized during the game by the referees or after it by the NHL.
(His penalty turned out to be a fight with Matt Martin late in Game 3.)
Through it all, Nelson endured, as he usually does, a quiet star who keeps delivering. He has eight goals and nine assists this postseason.
That eighth goal came off a nice pass from Anthony Beauvillier, who wheeled around in the left faceoff circle and found Nelson in the right one, from which he beat Andrei Vasilevskiy to make it 4-3.
It was the return of a favor by Beauvillier, who earlier had scored on a lovely feed from Nelson, who swooped behind the Tampa Bay net to set him up.
The fact that Killorn was not available while Nelson was leading the victory was a plot twist lost on no one.
Nelson declined to bite on the obvious narrative afterward, but his teammates were not shy about doing so.
“Yeah, I mean, obviously, it was a tougher game for him last game, getting a couple of shots, dirty plays there,” Beauvillier said. “It’s fun to see him score.”
Said Cal Clutterbuck, “I mean, he’s a pro. He’s an elite hockey player. I’m not sure he gets enough credit for what he does out there. He just displayed another level of character in the way that he responded to the other night.
“Obviously, it was a dirty play, and sometimes you’re on the receiving end of those. There’s nothing you can do. But he fought through, and to his credit, he just continues to grow and rise to the moment.”
So . . . poetic justice?
“It could be anybody, really, with us any night, but maybe a little bit of justice,” Clutterbuck said. “But those are story lines we’re not concerned about. Whether it was him or someone else who ended up scoring, the fact is we won the game, and that’s what we’re concerned about.”
A loss would have been both a mathematical and emotional blow from which the Islanders likely would not have recovered, not after allowing the Lightning to tie it with two goals in the third.
But Nelson said, “We stuck with it. We stayed the course and kind of got right back on it. You can’t sit back too much against a team like that. They’ll come at you in waves.”
Nelson, 28, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract after last season, led the Islanders with 26 goals in the regular season — but Friday night’s goal was his biggest yet.
“Brock’s a little bit under the radar to a lot of people,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s grown so much over the years. He’s battling through that last game. It wasn’t easy.
“But I wasn’t surprised, knowing Brock. He just got determined and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to bounce back.’ He’s resilient.”
Seven victories to go.