UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The New York Islanders got goals from four different players and strong goaltending from their ageless netminder en route to a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night.
It was a tough win that had it all: a raucous crowd, dubious officiating, and a happy Jack Capuano, all within a two-and-a-half hour period at the Coliseum.
The late-breaking news before puck drop was concerning Isles iron man Matt Moulson. As the warm-ups started on-ice, Moulson’s absence was notable; it turned out that he had been battling the flu and wasn’t able to lace up his skates for the game, which ended his streak of 284 consecutive games played to begin his Islanders career.
In place of Moulson on the Isles top line, Michael Grabner joined John Tavares and Brad Boyes. Fans wondering what Grabner would look like playing alongside JT were treated to a possible preview of what next year’s first line could be. (Note: unlikely, considering the wealth of prospects the Isles have…but still.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on the Grabs—JT—Boyes line later.
“Where selling out is a GOOD thing.”
The pregame lead-in was as energetic as we’ve seen in the Coliseum in recent years, as the announced sellout crowd provided a playoff-type atmosphere. The fans were into the game from the opening faceoff, starting the action with a full-voiced “LET’S—GO—ISLANDERS” chant. (Hopefully we’ll be hearing more of those at the end of April, and into May and June.)
During the opening minutes of the broadcast, Butch Goring even made note of the renewed excitement around the franchise, saying, “All over town, people are talking about the Islanders. I haven’t heard that conversation in a long time.”
Despite wearing the infamous black (third) jerseys, the Isles started strong and took it to the Bolts. The ice was clearly slanted towards the Tampa Bay goal, as the Islanders controlled the pace of play and had the better chances early on.
The Lightning had a chance to get on the board first during a power play after a Thomas Hickey cross check on against Steven Stamkos, but the Isles penalty killers filled their roles well. They pressured the Bolts immediately upon entering the zone and never gave them a chance to set up their umbrella or move the puck.
Back to Grabner, though. Those fans that were eager to see him on Tavares’s wing were rewarded with a beauty of a goal from the speedy winger at 14:45 of the first period.
Grabs picked up the puck at the blue line off a Tampa Bay turnover, drove towards the slot, looked off Lighting goalie Ben Bishop with a quick glance at JT, then buried a slap shot over Bishop’s glove hand.
(An aside: the foghorn at the Coliseum might be my all-time favorite sound, barely edging out the sound of the roar of the crowd after an Islanders goal.)
The crowd kept the energy level high throughout the rest of the period, perhaps knowing that the Isles had a 13-3-3 record when scoring the game’s first goal coming into tonight. The team killed off a late penalty to end the period – thanks to some truly massive saves by goaltender Evgeni Nabokov – and skated off to a standing ovation from the fans.
“Off to a slow start. Again.”
Tampa Bay, by comparison, got off to a fast start in the second frame, catching the Isles in several situations where the team looked a bit sluggish. To the coaching staff’s – and the fans’ – chagrin, this team continues to struggle at the beginning of a period.
Vincent Lecavalier ignited the Bolts offense by dropping a slick blind pass as he circled the Islanders goal that found the stick of Richard Panik. No defenseman expected the pass from Lecavalier, which led to no one picking up Panik. Nabby never saw the pass or the shot, as Panik found himself at the side of an empty net for an easy goal.
To the Isles’ credit, they didn’t roll over and die. We’ve all seen this team react negatively to giving up goals before, but this particular edition of the team seems to raise their intensity level when things get tough.
As has been the case over the past month, the Islanders second line of Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo provided a much-needed spark.
A spectacular individual effort by KO in the offensive zone – seriously, who would’ve thought two months ago that he was capable of keeping the puck on a string like that – led to another goal by Bailey.
Bailey was in perfect position: front of the net, stick on the ice, and he reaped the rewards of his smart positioning to fight through a screen and slide a backhand past Bishop to put the Islanders up 2-1 at 8:22.
A quick note on Okposo: he must’ve gotten a software update at some point during the past month. “KO v2.0” is absolutely the type of player the Isles thought they were getting when they drafted him seventh overall in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
The Islanders consolidated the momentum they gained after the Bailey goal by killing off another Lightning power play in the final five minutes of the period, again allowing only a single shot on goal.
“And a grinder would lead them.”
The 2-1 Isles lead was safe for exactly four minutes of third-period game time, which is when the defensive zone play from our team was…suspect, to say the least.
An inability to clear the defensive zone led to a prolonged shift by the Bolts, which wasn’t made any easier for the Isles when Nabokov lost his stick and couldn’t regain control of it. Lightning defenseman Matt Carle found a loose puck in the slot and netted the game-tying goal relatively easily.
We’d all seen this movie before: Isles play well, Isles sit back, Isles give up bad goal, Isles get depressed, Isles lose game. Fortunately for the crowd in the Coliseum and the rest of us watching at home, our team was sick of that script.
Perennial sparkplug and fan-favorite Matt Martin found the back of the net for the third time this season at 13:34 of the period, giving the Isles a much-needed 3-2 lead. Passes from the captain Mark Streit and the recently signed Anders Lee led to a snap shot from Martin that fooled Bishop.
The Tampa Bay goaltender never saw the shot, as he was screened by a Bolts defenseman. By the time the puck was behind him, Bishop was shaking his head and had his arms raised. (In case anyone in the arena wasn’t aware, he never saw the puck. You know, in case you didn’t know that. He was just making it clear. For everyone.)
With the crowd back into the game, the Isles were able to weather the storm that came from the Lightning, who were playing with renewed vigor. As I’ve said before, I’m never comfortable when this team has the lead, but tonight I felt differently.
Even after the Bolts pulled Bishop for the extra attacker, the defense from the Islanders was stout. The NHL’s leading shot-blocker Andy MacDonald even got on the score sheet, flipping a 150-foot clearing attempt towards the Tampa Bay net that went in with only 14 seconds remaining on the clock.
A 4-2 final in favor of the Isles is how it’ll go into the record books, but the fans that watched the game know the true magnitude of this win.
The Islanders remain in the playoff picture, now with 42 points. Although they’re tied with the Rangers in points, their in-state rivals have a game in hand. A loss by the New Jersey Devils tonight means they drop 3 points behind the Isles for the final playoff spot.
“Breathe. Just breathe.”
Watching the players, the coaches and the fans after the final horn, I’m starting to realize that something special might be going on in Nassau County. After all, it takes a lot to get Cappy to crack a smile, let alone raise his hands above his head and high five his assistant coaches – which he did tonight, believe it or not.
I came into this season thinking that this team was ready to make the leap and possibly contend for a playoff spot. After tonight’s gritty performance, I’m changing my opinion slightly: this team has the capability not only to make the playoffs, but to do some damage if and when they get there.
If I’m the Montreal Canadiens, or the Winnipeg Jets/Washington Capitals, I wouldn’t want to face the Islanders in the first round. Maybe that’s my fan bias talking, but the way this team has played of late, anything is possible.
(Besides, the Los Angeles Kings had a decent postseason after sneaking into the playoffs as an eight seed last year. Why not us? Why not now?)
But to my main point, which I’ve been leading up to over the past few lines: if I’m this worked up after a regular-season Islanders win – even though it WAS the most important game of the year, no understatement – I have no idea how I’ll handle a playoff series (or two, or three…or four).
But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.
One more thing: be sure to follow the EyesOnIsles staff on Facebook and on Twitter. All the cool kids are doing it…
@eyesonisles (Rich Diaz)
@tazman19 (Andy Graziano)
@moosiestmoose42 (Scotty Bonner)
@MichaelWillhoft (Do I really need to tell you?)