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New York Islanders

Hold the Fort: Varlamov, Defense Keep Islanders Alive in ECF



If anyone deserved a moment to celebrate after Jordan Eberle’s double-overtime goal, it was New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov.

Offensive adjustments did little to spark the Islanders on Tuesday night, but Varlamov and a bend-don’t-break defense helped New York force a Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals with a 2-1 double-overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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Varlamov, who’s had an up-and-down postseason, arguably had his best game in net in the Islanders’ biggest game of the season. He stopped 36 of 37 chances and was a perfect 6-for-6 on power-play shots. Varlamov hadn’t made more than 34 saves in a playoff game this year before Tuesday’s effort.

After the game, Varlamov couldn’t help but laugh at it his own celebration. The Islanders netminder charged into the post-goal celebration headfirst after skating all the way down to the other end of the ice.

“I don’t know, I just jumped because I was so excited for us,” Varlamov said. “Our season was on the line today, this game. When we scored, there were a lot of emotions going through in that moment. I was so happy for the guys and so happy for us.”

The 36 saves were the most he made in a single Stanley Cup Playoffs game since he recorded 45 stops with the Colorado Avalanche against the Minnesota Wild on April 21, 2014.

“He’s endeared himself to everybody, obviously with his play and his personality,” Barry Trotz said of Varlamov. “I’ll have to watch (the dive) again, but heard it was pretty, pretty emotional.”

DOUBLE OT SURVIVAL: Eberle, Varlamov Lead Islanders to Gm 5 Win

Tuesday’s sharp night stood in contrast with some of his earlier games in the second round and early in the conference final. During a three-game stretch from the Philadelphia Flyers series to Game 1 against Tampa Bay, Varlamov had allowed 14 goals. That came after he had set the Islanders postseason shutout streak with 138:17 minutes of scoreless play early in the second round.

But even including a disastrous first game, Varlamov has a .917 save percentage this series during 5-on-5 situations and .910 overall. So these playoffs have come with many peaks and valleys, to say the least.

More importantly with the Islanders’ season on the line Tuesday, he made 22 saves from the third period on help New York stave off elimination. In seven high danger chances, Varlamov was perfect, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Without a playoff game in six years before this run, Varlamov said he’s grateful to keep his team in the hunt following an elimination game.

“I didn’t have a chance to play a lot of playoff games in my NHL career, but I’m just happy to be here today and play these playoffs,” Varlamov said. “It’s very exciting for me, it’s very exciting for this team to play in the Conference Final.”

Varlamov was aided by the play of those in front of him and they got an added boost from a familiar face.

The Islanders eschewed the normal 12-forward, six-defensemen structure and instead played with seven blue liners. The plan, according to Trotz, was to keep the defense fresh throughout the game.

Johnny Boychuk, who hadn’t played since a head injury in Game 1 of the qualifying round was inserted back on defense. He played a team-low 12:04 minutes, but he made the most of that time leading the team with six blocks.

Trotz said Boychuk is a “leader and a father figure” to many of the young players and having his presence back in the lineup gave the team a different energy.

“Johnny’s one of those unique guys you come across, he’s old school,” Trotz said. “He’s one of the most likable guys you’re ever going to meet, one of the most committed guys. The first shift he blocked two or three shots. He’s got welts all over his body.”

Next on the list of block shots came Ryan Pulock, who finished with four. One of which was a game-saving diving stop to deny Ondrej Palat a grade-A opportunity late in the third period. There also was the block and then-controversial use of his gloves to deny Nikita Kucherov a chance in the waning seconds of the first overtime. As a team, the Islanders blocked 32 shots.

Pulock, however, played a well-rounded game and provided a spark in the offensive end as well.

The much-maligned New York power play finally got a goal, courtesy of a Pulock rocket from the left side in the first period. And for the game, the defenseman finished with a 52.94 Corsi for percentage, tops among Islanders defenseman and third overall on the team.

As a group, New York allowed 14 high danger shots over four-and-a-half periods of play, a smaller number than they had yielded in the previous two games that finished in regulation. The penalty kill unit stopped all three Tampa Bay power plays, including a four-minute man advantage from Anthony Beauvillier’s double minor that carried from the third into overtime.

“That’s a critical part of the game,” Pulock said. “Obviously you have a four-minute kill late, we did a good job early and it kinda gives you a chance to regroup in the intermission. And we came out and killed the rest.”

In what the Islanders lacked in offensive urgency they made up for with elite goaltending and a defense that limited prime shot attempts.

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New York Islanders

Bruce Bennett Remained in Moment While Capturing Islanders Conference Finals Run



Bruce Bennett captures handshake line

When the New York Islanders playoff run shifted to Edmonton there was only one person who regularly covered the team inside the bubble with them. It wasn’t the regular beat writers who often traveled with the team, nor was it the broadcast crew that covers all 82 of their games, plus the postseason.

No, it wasn’t any of them. Rather, it was hockey photographer and Getty’s director of hockey photography Bruce Bennett, who in four decades of shooting hockey has seen just about everything.

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“Being the only Long Island guy in the bubble is kind of bizarre,” Bennett told NYI Hockey Now during a Zoom interview from his hotel room in Edmonton. “But, to succeed in this business you need to put that wall up. Whether you’re blocking the fans out or you’re blocking the noise in the building out, which obviously we don’t have to do here. I have to block out that Long Islander in me and go ‘it’s just about you and the game and capturing the scene.'”

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - SEPTEMBER 09: Pat Maroon #14 of the Tampa Bay Lightning is checked into the goal as Semyon Varlamov #40 of the New York Islanders tends net during the second period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on September 09, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The laser-focused approach that Bennett brings to his work is something that even Islanders head coach Barry Trotz would admire, and it’s what has made him one of the best to capture some of the Islanders’ and hockey’s biggest moments. Bennett is in the middle of his 45th season photographing hockey and the 40th Stanley Cup Final he will have covered.

This one will certainly be the most unique one he’s had to work.

Bennett is just one of only a handful of photographers capturing one of the most historic Stanley Cup playoffs that the NHL has put on. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett has been forced to snap pictures from the last row of Rogers Place because he not permitted inside the more secure areas of the bubble that the league has created around the unique 2020 postseason.

That means Bennett’s usual spot on the glass is off-limits for him.

Similar to what the players experienced, Bennett went through his own adjustment period when he began shooting games on Aug 24. Bennett arrived in the Edmonton 14 days earlier but was forced to quarantine in adherence to Canadian restrictions for anyone entering the country.

“I guess I’ve come to the realization that with that crowd going crazy that not only gets the players into the game, but it gets my head into the game more,” Bennett said. “It’s like a bubble hockey game where you’re outside looking in. The distance is a big thing. Shooting from so far away and seeing the tops of heads is odd, instead of seeing faces.”

Bennett did get a little bit of a break when the Islanders entered the Edmonton bubble for the Eastern Conference Finals.

Having that knowledge of the players and their movements made Bennett’s job easier. Similar to how a linemate gets to know a teammate’s pattern, it was the same for Bennett when he was shooting pictures.

“Where there most likely to go on the ice, where there passes are most likely to go,” Bennett explained. “Having a little bit of familiarity and being the hometown Long Island boy, trying to take the fan out of it, that’s definitely helped. It piqued my interest and getting the razzing from the two other photographers who are beside me when the Islanders give up a goal. It’s all good natured fun, but it’s definitely got my head back in the game.”

Bennett’s connection with the Islanders runs deeper than just the visits to Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center to photograph the Islanders. Bennett served as the team’s official photographer and has captured some of the most iconic images in the team’s history.

His photo of Bobby Nystrom following his Stanley Cup Winning goal from 1980 remains one of Bennett’s top memories

Bobby Nystrom

Even with that connection to the Islanders, Bennett maintained an emotional distance from what was transpiring on the ice with the Islanders. New York had been competing in the conference finals for the first time since 1993.

“I remove myself from the situation. It’s the only way to do this job,” Bennett said. “The only positive is my 95-year-old mother back in East Meadow gets her Newsday everyday and she’s clipping out my pictures with the photo credits on them. I guess that’s what I’m shooting for. … I’m very close to (the Islanders), but when I get into that arena it’s really just about the best images.”

And getting that iconic image, as Bennett has done so many times, is a simple formula for the veteran photographer. For him, it’s just about remaining focused during the course of the game and outworking the photographers around him.

Bennett does the homework before going into any game he covers. He reads newspapers, checks the hockey websites and looks at the media notes. “I’m prepared and I’m hoping when I get to a game they’re not prepared,” Bennett said.

“For us, you have to be in the game,” Bennett said. “It’s a little bit of a formula. A goalie save. A hard hit, jubilation, dejection and then you run back through it. Some creative images. Some that are off center, white ice and player on the side of the image. There is a little bit of a formulaic progression that you go through during a game.”

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New York Islanders

Islanders Fans Give Team Warm Welcome Following Surprising Postseason Run



Islanders fans

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — For a moment, standing in the parking lot of Republic Airport you would have sworn that you were at the Nassau Coliseum.

Fans walked about in New York Islanders jerseys and chanting “Let’s Go Islanders!” Motorists in their cars leaned on the horn to the same tune. That was the way Islanders fans welcomed the team back to Long Island on Friday afternoon following their Game 6 elimination loss to Tampa Bay the night before.

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What started as a post on social media about trying to welcome the Islanders home after a month and a half in the NHL’s playoff bubble, led to a sizable crowd waiting just outside the airport gates to greet the team.

“They played with a lot of heart,” Islanders fan Rich Alonzo said. “It was just an amazing thing to see how far this team has come over the 30 years of my life and just the effort they gave. They gave it their all and this is what I could do to give back to them. I’d do anything I can for this team.”

The Islanders charter flight from Edmonton landed on Long Island just after 4:15 p.m. The players disembarked to rousing cheers from the fans that tracked to the small Long Island airport, located less than 15 miles away from the Nassau Coliseum.

One fan NYI Hockey Now spoke with made the trip all the way from Patchogue in eastern Long Island. Another had left school early so he could get to Farmingdale in time to welcome the Islanders home.

Fans carried flags and homemade posters and waved them as the players got off the plane. Chants of “Varly” and “Lou” echoed around the area on several occasions, as did chants for Islanders coach Barry Trotz and star forward Mat Barzal.

“Just how hard the boys worked, they deserve a good welcome home,” Nick Wolf said. “Especially for everything they sacrificed to give us some more Islanders hockey this season. They played amazing. It’s the least we could do.”

For a number of fans on hand on Friday, this year had been the first time they had seen the Islanders go as far as they did. The Islanders hadn’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 1993.

So for fans like 19-year-old Taylor Hackal and her 17-year-old sister Brooke, it had been a season like no other.

“I think it’s so cool for us to be a part of it and to be young fans,” Taylor Hackal said while holding a Fathead cutout of Jean-Gabriel Pageau. “Moving forward and as we grow up we can always remember this as one of the best seasons that they’ve had. I think it’s really great.”

It was a similar feel that Anthony Galanoudis expressed.

“I was bord in 1995, so this is the deepest I’ve seen them make it,” Galanoudis said. “A lot of young fans here that missed the glory days, the dynasty days. This is our first taste of success and ever since Lou and Trotz came along I think it’s here to stay.”

Several of the Islanders waved to the fans as the got off the plane. Cal Clutterbuck motioned to the crowd several times.

And Pageau thanked Islanders fans for their support in a tweet he sent out while sitting on the bus at Republic Airport.

That surely was to the delight of Brooke Hackal, who called the addition of the centerman one of her top moments this season.

“We were automatically obsessed with him,” Brooke Hackal said. “He’s one of our best players and I think just seeing him be so successful in this playoff series is just really exciting. Looking forward to the future.”

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New York Islanders

Arnold: Islanders Have Plenty to be Proud of Following Postseason Run



New York Islanders handshake line

Even 2,400 miles away, Anders Lee’s emotions were palpable as he addressed the media after the New York Islanders 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It was the farthest Lee had gone in his career in the playoffs and it was the most significant step the franchise he captains has taken in 27 years. Ironic, when you think about, considering that it’s the same as the number on the back of his jersey.

“I can’t speak volumes more about this group and our guys,” an emotional Lee said. “The pride we take in going out there every night and playing.”

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