You can't sit back and expect to protect a one-goal lead for 20 minutes.
That wasn't the game plan heading into the third period in the New York Islanders' 2-1 OT loss in Game 6 to the Carolina Hurricanes that ended their season, but it was the scenario that played out in front of a bewildered UBS Arena crowd that had watched their team dominate much of the first two periods and were expecting the season and series to continue.
“When you’re just trying to hold on, it doesn’t work well,” Mathew Barzal said. “The first few periods we were playing aggressive and in the third period, we kind of sat back and just wanted to clog it up and make it hard. Sometimes when you do that, it goes the other way.”
The Islanders held a 28-19 shot advantage after two periods. They may have been their two best periods of the series, but their inability to finish and extend the lead against Frederik Andersen kept Game 6 only a 1-0 lead heading into the third period. Rather than coming out flying, looking to finish off the Canes, it was Rod Brind'Amour's team that pushed the Islanders from the start, hemming them in their zone and preventing the Islanders from establishing any type of a forecheck.
It felt like the Islanders were trying to hold on for the entire 20 minutes, and after several big saves by Ilya Sorokin, Carolina's Sebastian Aho broke through at 9:24 of the period to tie the game at 1-1. From there, the mood shifted in the building to just trying to hold on until overtime, when the team could hopefully regroup as the Canes kept coming.
The shots ended up 19-5 in the third and for the second time this series, the Islanders blew a third period lead they held midway through the third period, games they would go on to lose in overtime.
“We had a couple chances to go up by more than one but I thought the third period, we failed to execute, had too many turnovers,” head coach Lane Lambert said. “They came hard and we needed to make more plays.
In an inconsistent roller coaster of a season, the one constant (with only a handful of exceptions) was the Islanders' inability to play a complete 60-minute game.
Slow starts, even when the head coach and players spoke of a sense of urgency, were the norm, and the team's tendencies flip-flopped between being a dominating third-period team and one that couldn't hold onto a lead and close out tight hockey games.
“It’s just hard to flip that switch mentally when you’re up one and don’t want to make that mistake,” Barzal said. “It’s more of a hard mental battle to try to get through.”
A mental battle they lost that ended their 2022-23 season.