Philadelphia,PA – The New York Islanders entered the city of brotherly love on Thursday night with one goal in mind. Pick up two precious points in the race for an Atlantic Division playoff seed. Staring up at the rival New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, the Isles started the night only 2 points from the 8th seed and 4 from the 7th seed. Their opponent would be no easy task, whatever the current NHL standings might say otherwise. The hometown Philadelphia Flyers trounced the visitors thoroughly in their last meeting at Nassau Coliseum, running away with a 7-0 thrashing. They also were bolstered by a 125-86-26 record lifetime against the team from Long Island, the 2nd most they have gained against any opponent.
Evgeni Nabakov would make his 29th start of the season forNew York, an astounding figure for the 37 year old Russian goaltender. Only 4 goalies in the entire league have started more than the Isles iron man. Ironically, the man at the other end of the pristine ice surface was Ilya Bryzgalov, who, along with Nabby, are the only two goaltenders in the NHL to account for all of their teams victories. The Flyers man behind the mask is trying to earn every last cent of his 9 year, 51 million dollar contract, himself starting 30 of the Flyers 32 contests this season.
The very early stages would go pretty much the way the Islanders envisioned, as they came out with a very strong start, pressuring the Flyers much maligned back end in the corners with dogged relentless forechecking. The Isles second line of Frans Neilsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, who some would argue has been the teams best line as of late had an outstanding opening shift. But then, everything would turn on its head, as Lubomir Visnovsky would take an undisciplined tripping penalty on Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who just refused to stop moving his feet and the leagues 2nd ranked power play unit would get a chance early. Claude Giroux would set up teammate Scott Hartnell, who flubbed his shot, sending a knuckeball that Nabakov could not pick up in time as it sailed under his glove for an early Flyers lead. From there, the teams traded chances and pressure equally until late in the frame when Thomas Hickey, who had a real tough night to say the least, turned the puck over in the neutral zone onto the stick of Giroux, whose delicious saucer dish to Mike Knuble ended up behind Nabby to put the Isles in a big hole heading into the 2nd period.
To anyone watching, the expectation to start the next period, especially from an Islanders fan perspective, was they were going to come out hard and with tons of pressure offensively. That was almost a given thought, considering that the 2nd period is the only period where the Isles have a positive goal differential this season. Instead the Flyers would be all over the visitors, keeping the puck pinned deep for what seemed like hours at a time, jumping to a 10-1 period shot advantage. It was very reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s famous rope-a-dope style, and rather fitting that it was taking place in the city where Rocky was filmed. The Islanders clutched and grabbed for dear life, taking punch after punch but not going down, Nabakov coming up especially big with a glove save on a Simmonds wide open rebound from the low slot. On the offensive end, it was business as usual so far with the first line struggling to really gain momentum and the Isles defense constantly either waiting too long to shoot or missing the net. Even a rare coaching decision by Jack Capuano to switch up all his forward lines did little to swing the momentum. Then lady luck would show her head, as John Tavares was dogged in his pursuit of a loose puck to the left side of the Flyers net in the low slot. JT spun and threw the puck back into the goal crease area, where it took a fortunate deflection off two defensemen and behind Bryzgalov for a precious marker that helped to stop the bleeding.
At the start of the third, the Isles were given a power play, as Braydon Schenn was sent off at the 20:00 mark of the 2nd for tripping Nabakov at the side of the Islanders net. This writer would be extremely remiss if I did not mention the utmost discipline of Matt Martin, who grabbed Schenn after the infraction and did all he could to let him know he was there without taking a coincidental minor. The power play failed to connect, however, it provided the team with momentum moving forward in a crucial 20 minutes. It would be within 10 minutes of a demoralizing defeat when the Isles 3rd line decided to step up and provide what few else could on this night. Michael Grabner, recently demoted in a somewhat puzzling decision to the bottom rung, dumped the puck into the far corner of the Flyers zone. Instead of watching the play, he smartly followed it up the opposite boards, expecting the clear around. Indeed there it was, back on his stick and he made no hesitation sliding a pass to Keith Aucoin in the corner. The diminutive Isles #10 one touched a beauty to Colin McDonald and he made no mistake, burying his 5th of the season to tie the game. It was just what the doctor ordered, as 5:37 later, one was not good enough. Martin and Casey Cizikas combined to get him the puck again, this time higher out in the slot and McDonald fired behind Bryzgalov to give the Isles the lead. With a -14 3rd period goal differential, could they hold on was the big question is Islanders fan land. Alas, they couldn’t. The Flyers were gifted a power play at the 18:37 mark by Neilsen, who inexplicably, closed his hand on the puck during a faceoff scrum. It would be costly. On a mad scramble in the Isles crease, Grabner fanned on a clearing attempt and the bouncing puck was jammed home by Scott Hartnell for his 2nd of the night, just squeaking past the outstretched pad of Nabakov. A huge point on the table as the teams headed for the extra session.
Once again, the Isles would start the overtime as they did the 3rd period, on the power play. Ex-Islander Bruno Gervais was whistled for delay of game at the final horn, officially 19:59, for sending the puck unimpeded over the glass into the crowd. This power play did not look good at all. Too much passing and not clearly enough movement, as the top 4 did little to generate one quality chance. The Flyers buzzed briefly at the close of overtime, as Tavares did an outstanding job in recognizing the situation and time remaining, to nearly tackle Giroux before he could make a bee line towards the Isles goal. The precious point would have to be decided in a way some favor and others loathe, the shootout, a skills competition between at least 3 forwards and 2 goaltenders.
Matt Read would be first for the home team and Nabakov held his ground for a good pad save. Neilsen, the NHL career leader in shootout percentage would be next and almost automatic, right? Well, let’s just say, it was not the best night for the Dane, as he roofed his famous backhand almost into the press box. When Giroux followed with a nifty move that you just have to watch twice in the game highlight pack below, it was up to Brad Boyes to even the score. Double B did just that, gliding in and sniping low near post. Schenn, Tavares and Simmonds would then all miss their opportunity before Josh Bailey rifled home a snap shot to secure the bonus point for the Islanders.
ONE MAN ON AN ISLAND
* 3 Stars – Bailey (NYI), Nabakov (NYI), Giroux (PHI)
Isles clearly did not play a full 60, even 65 minutes but were fortunate on this night to get a bounce on the JT goal and win the skills competition. The problem areas all season reared their ugly heads again in transition, clearances out of the defensive zone and holding a late lead.
Shots were even at 36, Isles lost the faceoff battle 35-30 and surprisingly dominated the hits category 31-13. Flyers blocked 26 shots to the Isles 13
The power play, 6th in the league coming in, failed on 5 attempts but in all honesty, looked pretty good with the exception of the 4 on3 in overtime.
At the end of the day, this is a team that all fans can and should believe in. They are so close to taking the next step we can all taste it. Some more maturation and a couple of additions, whether internal or external, on the defensive side and comeBrooklyn, this is going to be a very good hockey team. Tavares is a budding superstar whose work ethic in each off-season only means we have not even seen his best yet.
With the Rangers loss in Ottawa, the Isles are in a virtual tie for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The 35 points in 34 games ties them with their cross town rivals, only 2 back of the New Jersey Devils for the 7th spot. Granted, each team has a game in hand but also have brutal schedules to close out the lockout shortened season. It all makes for fun but nervous moments around the team and fanbase down the stretch. And isn’t that what we have all been asking for? Meaningful games in April? Here they come folks, buckle your seat belt and put your seat backs and tray tables in their upright and locked position. We could experience some turbulence.
Thanks to Rich Diaz and Scotty Bonner for welcoming me to eyesonisles. I look forward to contributing in a big way and seeing this rebuild all the way to fruition.
You can follow me on Twitter, @tazman19
Thanks for reading and remember, it’s just a game……..right?