The New York Islanders came out last night and played not only their first game back from the winter Olympic break but also the first of 22 to close out the 2013-14 season without captain John Tavares.
With Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin also missing from the regular 20 man lineup, it was showtime for three recent call-ups from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers; one expected, one assumed and one totally out of nowhere.
In front of an announced crowd of 13,922 (excellent for a Thursday night game in Long Island) the home team came out passive in the game’s opening seven minutes and became the victim once again of shoddy defending in their own zone, especially by Thomas Vanek. Phil Kessel darted in and took a pass in the high slot from Tyler Bozak before firing past Evgeni Nabokov. It was Kessel’s team leading 32nd of the season and gave Toronto a lead that they would have a huge part in relinquishing before twenty minutes was up.
That goal seemed to ignite something in the Islanders and with Eric Boulton serving a two minute minor for holding, Michael Grabner showed that the confidence he had in Sochi had been packed up and shipped back home with his luggage. Dogged forechecking by the very lively Casey Cizikas led to Grabner cutting in and rifling a shot past Jonathan Bernier‘s blocker to knot the game at one.
But the Islanders speedster would not be denied as he jumped over the boards at the end of that same Maple Leafs power play. With the suddenly resurgent Islanders penalty kill (50 of last 57, 88%) doing the job once again, Grabner raced into the Leafs zone and pressured Bernier to play the puck off his defenseman’s skate for an easy open net tap in.
The second period would be uneventful but the game would turn on it’s proverbial ear in the third. Always known to play high scoring affairs, both teams laid it on the line for the final 20 minutes. And it all set up for an Islanders rookie making his first appearance of the season to play the hero.
Paul Ranger and Dion Phaneuf Cuthbert scored by the 11:26 mark to give Toronto the lead and the Coliseum crowd could be heard expressing their collective sighs and cries of ‘here we go again’. Lee would then strike for the first time at 12:52, taking advantage of power play time in the wake of all the injuries.
Calvin de Haan continued his outstanding play with great vision to find Josh Bailey at the side of the Toronto goal. Bailey’s pass across the crease to a well positioned Lee went off Bernier before landing in the feet of Lee. He calmly composed himself like a five year veteran and placed the puck into the open net. A truly heady play by a kid who looked totally shell-shocked in his brief appearance last season.
After Joffrey Lupul, almost on cue, gave Toronto back the lead about a minute later when the Islanders again forgot to bother covering anyone in the defensive zone, most thought that would wrap up the night and send New York to their sixth consecutive home loss.
Lee had other ideas however. Ryan Strome threw the puck into the crease from behind the net and Lee, again planting himself in front of the net and becoming rock steady on his skates, had it carom off him and squeak behind Bernier to tie the game yet again with just 2:40 showing on the clock.
It was the kind of dirty, ‘get to the goal scoring area’ goals that the Islanders expect out of Lee, who needs to play to his listed 6’2 frame. And it is also something that the Islanders have lacked all season long.
After Lubomir Visnovsky scored off a James van Riemsdyk turnover in overtime to cap the night and Islanders win, Lee was announced as the second star of the game and might have deserved the first over Grabner.
At the end of the day, all we can hope is that the development of Strome and Lee continues at an upwards ascension through the end of the regular season. If it does, there could be no doubt 18 and 27 will be fixtures not only at training camp in September of 2014 but when the team breaks for the regular season in October.
- Thomas Vanek was especially passive and dis-interested in his 19:01 of ice time. Scratching the soon to be departed winger might be best for all involved at this point.
- Ryan Strome had 4 shots and an assist in 14:04.
- Mike Halmo played a very active 9:01 in his NHL debut, delivering 4 hits with a shot on goal.
- Travis Hamonic led all Islanders in ice time at 23:27. Eric Boulton was a game low 6:12.
- Brock Nelson was a disappointing 4 W-13 L on faceoffs.
- The Islanders outshot Toronto 19-7 over the third period and overtime.