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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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New York Islanders

Islanders Players React After Eye Injury Ends Johnny Boychuk’s Career

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Johnny Boychuk

It wasn’t too loo long after Johnny Boychuk announced he was ending his 13-year NHL career that the reaction from current and former teammates started to pour in.

Johnny Boychuk spent the past six seasons as a member of the New York Islanders and the guys he took the ice with on a nightly basis praised the 36-year-old defenseman for the person and player he was. Part of the legacy Boychuk leaves behind from his time on Long Island was just how important a leader he was in the locker room.

All of that showed as players reacted to the news on social media.

“It’s been an honor to share the ice with you,” Anthony Beauvillier wrote on Instagram. “Proud to call you a friend. You’ll truly be missed. Much love JB”

Others took to Twitter to wish Boychuk well in his post-playing days and share their memories of playing alongside him.

Even former Islanders netminder Robin Lehner took a moment to honor his former teammate.

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Arnold: Johnny Boychuk Helped Change Perception, Culture of New York Islanders

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New York Islanders Defenceman Johnny Boychuk (55) during warm-up before National Hockey League action between the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators

Johnny Boychuk paused several times during his Zoom call with the reporters less than an hour after news broke that his 13 year NHL career had come to an end. The emotions of the moment getting the better of him for a second or two.

The often goofy Boychuk tried to remain his usual self, but the sadness of the situation was clearly visible as Boychuk discussed the previous few months and how an eye injury he suffered in March had led to the end of his playing days.

Johnny Boychuk looked back fondly at the past six years that he spent with the Islanders, where he appeared in 404 games and recorded 35 goals and 95 assists. He recalled how he spent a majority of that time partnered with Nick Leddy, who was acquired within hours of Boychuk back on Oct. 4, 2014.

And the 36-year-old defenseman discussed how his greatest memory of being an Islander was the people he came across.

“Meeting the people on the Island,” Boychuk started to say before pausing to regain his composure. “From the arena attendants to the security guards to the media. The players, the coaches, the staff. I mean the management, the owners. Meeting all these great people. There have been so many good memories. … It’s tough to process everything at one time.”

What became abundantly clear in the hours after Boychuk announced the end of his career was the place he holds in Islanders fans’ hearts.

Yes, Johnny Boychuk won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins and spent six years in Beantown, but some of his most significant contributions came during his time on Long Island. And the biggest was the faith he showed when re-signing with the Islanders in 2015.

The signing went well beyond just making the Islanders a better team, it helped start to chip away at the perception that Long Island wasn’t a place top-tier talent wanted to stay. What Boychuk, and subsequently Leddy, gave the Islanders was a sense of credibility back that they had been lacking for some time.

“I’d seen it before where guys would come to the Island and they would leave within a year or two,” Boychuk said on Wednesday. “When I got traded to the Island we had a good group of young players, but now they’re veteran players. They’ve got experience and I think a lot of guys see potential in the Islanders. It’s a good place to play, to be with your family and to have a bond together as a team. It will continue to just get better and better.

“I think the fans realized it. I didn’t realize it at the time when I first got traded, but after being there a year I realized what it was to be an Islander and you take pride in it.”

Boychuk made an indelible mark on the Islanders organization through leadership on and off the ice. He won over fans through his gritty style of play and give it all attitude. Boychuk left it all on the ice with every shift.

He nearly brought the roof down in 2015 during a desperation clear in the closing seconds of the second period of Game 3 of the Islanders First Round series against Washington. And there were plenty more moments like that throughout his time on Long Island.

Boychuk may have never won a Stanley Cup with the Islanders, but he helped change the culture and perception of an organization that needed it. While he may not be retiring on the terms he would have liked, Boychuk can take some solace in knowing the franchise is in a much better place now than it was when he arrived.

“I think everybody has seen the transformation of how the team did that to themselves,” Boychuk said. “With Lou (Lamoriello) and Barry (Trotz) coming in halfway through my time on the Island it’s just been getting better and better as well. It will continue to get better and better because we play together and we play for each other, and we always will.”

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Johnny Boychuk’s Career Ends Due to Eye Injury

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Johnny Boychuk

The NHL career of Johnny Boychuk came to an end on Wednesday after 13 seasons.

The New York Islanders announced that Boychuk’s time in the NHL had come to an end due to an eye injury he suffered during the regular season. Boychuk was clipped by the skate of the Montreal Canadiens’ Artturi Lehkonen on March 3 just above his eyelid.

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The gruesome injury required 90 stitches to repair the cut, but it did not preclude Johnny Boychuk from playing briefly during the postseason this year. While Boychuk did appear in three games during the playoffs over the summer, he did begin to feel the injury start to become an issue again.

“I kind of felt it in the bubble a little bit, but when I got out I started to work out and I really realized there was something wrong,” Boychuk said during a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon. “I went and got it checked out and after I got it checked out I let Lou know what was going on. It’s been two months of doctors and MRIs and X-Rays. It’s been a while.”

After months of tests and exams, the results Boychuk got back were eye-opening, he said during the call. Doctors told the veteran defenseman that his prereferral vision was “pretty bad” and that there was some optic nerve damage.

Doctors even went as far as to tell Boychuk that some of the damage to his eye was irreversible. The news was serious enough that it took any decision Boychuk was going to have right out of his hands.

“When somebody tells you you’re not going to play again or you shouldn’t or else you’re going to get seriously hurt it’s been really tough,” he said. “I don’t even think it was a decision. When you play with it and realize there’s something wrong and then you go and get tests. It wasn’t really a decision, it was a life choice.

“If I was to go play again and not being able to see somebody coming and getting hit, I could be a lot worse than what I was.”

While Boychuk’s career is coming to an end, the 36-year-old wasn’t quite sure if he was officially retiring or if he was being placed on LTIR. Boychuk had two years remaining on his contract and the Islanders would be able to use his $6 million cap hit if they put him on LTIR.

The Islanders have a mere $3.9 million in cap space with restricted free agent Mathew Barzal still unsigned.

“The injury is causing me to stop playing, so I don’t know if it’s retiring or LTIR,” Boychuk said. “I just know that it’s going to cause me to not play because it’s basically not safe for me if I can’t see things coming. For the future, I have no idea what to do because this has just been two months of going to doctors and I’m trying to think about what I can do after, but I’m not too sure yet.

“I want to be on the Island obviously. We built a house there, so there was no plans on leaving, but I just don’t know.”

Johnny Boychuk has spent the last six seasons with the Islanders, appearing in 404 games and recording 131 points (35 goals, 96 assists). He was acquired by the Islanders on Oct. 4, 2014, from the Boston Bruins in exchange for a pair of second-round picks.

Boychuk signed a seven-year contract extension later that season.

Prior to his trade to New York, Johnny Boychuk spent six years with Boston where he appeared in 317 games and won a Stanley Cup in 2011. In addition, Boychuk spent one season with the Colorado Avalanche.

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