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

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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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