Semyon Varlamov made save after save after save against the Bruins to give both the Islanders a chance and the amped-up crowd at Nassau Coliseum, expanded to a season-high 12,000 on Thursday night, more reasons to cheer.
But now the Islanders' path to the NHL semifinals has become significantly harder as Tuukka Rask upstaged Varlamov in overtime. Brad Marchand snapped a shot over Varlamov’s glove from the left at 3:36 of the extra period as the Bruins won Game 3, 2-1, to take a 2-1 series lead.
"These are two teams that are – let’s just say what it is – fairly evenly matched," coach Barry Trotz said. "We’re playing nose-to-nose, blue-collar hockey. And it’s not going to be easy. The hard way is going to be the only way in this series. There was no easy ice."
Game 4 is Saturday night. The Islanders, who won Game 2, 4-3, in overtime on Monday night in Boston, also trailed the Penguins, 2-1, in the first round before winning three straight.
"There have been three really good hockey games," Trotz said. "Standing behind the bench, I have a lot of confidence in what we can do. I’m sure Bruce (Cassidy) does with his team. Both teams are playing each other hard. It’s just going to get more, hopefully, ramped up as we go along. I’m loving the atmosphere. I’m loving the challenge and our players are not scared of it, that’s for sure."
Varlamov (39 saves) was the hard-luck loser after Rask (28 saves) denied Jordan Eberle from the high slot and then Mathew Barzal on the rebound chance at the crease at 2:08 of overtime.
Barzal had already scored his first goal of the playoffs, stuffing in his second attempt at the left post at 14:34 of the third period to tie it at 1.
"It’s tough for about 10 minutes and then it’s the playoffs so you turn the page," Barzal said. "We know there’s a lot of good things tonight to build off of so we’re excited. We’ve been in this situation before against Pitt so we’re just going to grind."
The Islanders couldn’t capitalize on three power-play chances, managing just one shot on Rask after Sean Kuraly was called for an offensive-zone cross check on Kyle Palmieri at 17:45 of the third period. But the Islanders also killed off two Bruins power plays in the third period before Barzal’s equalizer.
The Islanders had other chances as well, despite being outshot 34-17 in the second and third periods.
Anthony Beauvillier, who had his six-game point streak snapped, had a breakaway chance at 7:47 of the first period but Rask made a blocker save. Rask also turned aside Beauvillier’s power-play chance from just above the crease at 9:45 of the second period and Beauvillier also couldn’t convert a breakaway backhander at 16:45 of the third period. He was then denied in tight with seven seconds left in regulation.
Barzal barely missed tying the game at 12:05 of the second period as he skated around defenseman Charlie McAvoy of Long Beach and shot just wide as he tried to stuff the puck inside the right post.
"We had our looks and we didn’t get the bounce today," Jean-Gabriel Pageau said. "But I think the vibe is pretty good. I think we found our game. At certain moments, we didn’t play our best but we were able to fight through the adversity and Varley was there for us the whole game to make all the big saves to give us a chance to come back in this game."
Still, the Bruins took an early 1-0 lead on their second shot despite the feverish crowd. Craig Smith, returning to the lineup after missing Game 2 with a lower-body injury, beat Varlamov over his glove and under the crossbar from the high slot off Taylor Hall’s feed from the right wall at 5:52 of the first period.
"I’m going to give him credit, that was a great shot," Varlamov said. "I just tried to prepare myself to play a good game. I knew it was not going to be an easy one. I think I was able to deal with the pressure pretty good today and came up pretty strong."