By Jeff Capellini
As the Florida Panthers can attest, there’s one German wall that hasn’t been torn down.
In the midst of his team manning up in epic fashion Friday night, Thomas Greiss showed once again that he may very well be the Islanders’ MVP for the season, let alone in the first round of the playoffs.
The veteran goaltender was simply unbelievable during Game 5, stopping 47 shots, including a penalty shot in the first overtime, enabling the Isles to hang around long enough before winning it on Alan Quine’s perfectly placed slap shot with four minutes to go in the second overtime.
“It (was) one of those games where the puck just finds you,” Greiss said following the scintillating 2-1 victory, the second-longest game in team history.
The Islanders won a Game 5 for the first time in their last 12 tries and now have a chance to close out the seemingly bigger and faster Atlantic Division champions on Sunday night at Barclays Center.
Coming into this series, the prevailing thought was the Panthers had the clear edge in goal, among many checks in their column that made them the favorites. But in my column previewing the series, I disagreed with all the love that was being shown to Roberto Luongo. While many Isles’ fans were all doom and gloom due to the 37-year-old netminder’s very good regular season, his postseason numbers, over the course of some 64 appearances prior to this series, were pedestrian.
In fairness to Luongo, he has been good through the first five games, as it is hard to criticize a 2.24 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, but it feels more like the Panthers’ 1-4 trap has caused the Isles more problems than anything Luongo has done.
The bottom line is Greiss has been better. He’s made most everyone forget about injured Jaroslav Halak, whose groin could be healed enough to get him back on the ice sometime in the not-too-distant future. While it’s unknown the exact timetable for Halak’s availability, at this point there’s no need to long for him.
Greiss is the No. 1 goaltender. End of story.
He has yet to have an off period in this series, let alone a less-than-stellar game. The 30-year-old career backup has posted a 2.09 GAA and .938 save percentage, silencing everyone, myself included, who cautioned that his one game of postseason experience entering this series had a chance to be his and the Islanders’ undoing. Fans and media types were right to worry about Florida’s offense, which comes in waves and is relentless creating traffic in front, but were wrong to assume Greiss wouldn’t be up to the challenge.
He has stopped 92 of the last 95 shots he’s faced. How’s that for a lack of postseason experience?
After weathering a second-period Florida storm, Greiss seemed to get stronger as Game 5 dragged on. The one goal he allowed in the third was more a work of art by the Panthers than it was anything he did incorrectly.
Then there was his penalty shot save on Aleksander Barkov during the first sudden death period. Simply put, it was a thing of beauty. Greiss refused to fall for the rugged Panthers forward’s series of stick fakes and then sprawled to push aside a backhand with his left pad.
It was quite a moment, for both teams.
“The goalie made a great save,” Barkov said after the game.
“I’m lucky I got it,” was Greiss’ response.
Islanders coach Jack Capuano, who has made tremendous personnel decisions throughout this series and has been at the top of his game for the last few months, said his team was inspired by Greiss’ stop on Barkov.
“I think any time you get a save (like that) it is going to jump-start your team,” Capuano said. “As far as Thomas standing tall, you’re going to need that in the playoffs if you’re going to be successful.”
Added Frans Nielsen, who staked the Islanders to a rare lead in this series with his first-period goal, “(Greiss) was huge for us tonight, big saves all night. It definitely gives you a little momentum when he saves a penalty shot.”
In the second overtime, Greiss stopped two point-blank attempts by the Panthers’ Game 4 hero, Alex Petrovic, kicking aside the big defenseman’s slot shot and then his try on the rebound.
Greiss’ heroics over the course of the game’s 96 minutes allowed the Islanders to slowly take the territorial edge. New York seemed to get stronger as overtime continued and ultimately forced Florida out of its neutral zone-swarming game plan.
As the momentum shifted to the Islanders, the Panthers got a little out of sorts in their own end as well, leading to Derek MacKenzie’s bad slashing penalty late in the second overtime. Quine made the hosts pay, sending the red-clad fans inside the BB&T Center home disappointed and the Islanders and their supporters back to Brooklyn with eyes on advancing.
So here we are. Despite being largely outplayed heading into Game 5, the Isles reached down deep and put themselves in position to get out of the first round for the first time since 1993. Barclays Center figures to be a madhouse and Capuano wants his players to soak it all in.
“To me it’s all about our fans and the atmosphere that will be in that building. We have to feed off our crowd, and that’s the big thing,” Capuano said. “We have to come out and play a simple first 10 minutes. I think the guys know how they have to play. I think it’s a situation where we don’t have to say too much as coaches.”
Greiss will undoubtedly be under the gun Sunday night as the Panthers will throw at him everything they have left. But make no mistake, Capuano’s crew grew up in a hurry Friday night and could very well have damaged their opponents beyond repair. What could have been a shooting gallery from the get-go with Greiss fending for his life and the Isles skating uphill ended up being one of the greatest efforts in the club’s postseason history.
Greiss has proven beyond any doubt that he’s a real difference-maker. He has picked this team up time and time again over the last 87 games. If the Islanders do indeed sweep the leg and put the Panthers out of commission on Sunday night, you can bet their anything-but-a-backup goalie will have a big say in it.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet