The Upshot: NY Islanders close out 2023 with 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins

Dec 31, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Reilly Smith (19) moves
Dec 31, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Reilly Smith (19) moves / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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HOW IT HAPPENED

The Pittsburgh Penguins got 36 saves from backup goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and defeated the New York Islanders 3-1 at PPG Paints Arena on New Year’s Eve. Lars Eller had two goals, including one into an empty net to seal the win. Noel Acciari also scored for the Penguins (18-13-4), who have won three straight and are 5-0-1 in their past six. Defenseman Samuel Bolduc scored his first goal of the season for the Isles (17-10-9), and Ilya Sorokin made 35 saves in the loss. It was the Pens’ second win against the Islanders in five days.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Defenseman Scott Mayfield returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 11 and was paired with Samuel Bolduc, who scored his first goal of the season in the third period. After the game, Mayfield said that his upper-body injury has actually allowed his lingering lower-body injury to heal. He played 17:58 TOI as Robert Bortuzzo was a healthy scratch. In another sign that the Isles blueline is getting healthier, Adam Pelech skated in the morning and is on the road trip with the team.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The Islanders had their chances in this game, especially early against Alex Nedeljkovic but could not break through. Casey Cizikas had a breakaway early in the first period that preceded the Pens' first goal on their first shot of the game. Brock Nelson also had a terrific chance when Nedelijkoic was out of position in his crease, and his helmet was jarred loose. He was able to get back to his feet and make a diving save to his left to stop Nelson's slap shot and maintain the Pittsburgh lead.

“It's frustrating. It's disappointing. We played well enough to win,” Lane Lambert said. “Both goalies played well, and we had some real good looks. We couldn't get it by [Nedeljkovic], and that was a difference in the game, but it was a game that chances went both ways.”

STATS OF THE GAME

Per Eric Hornick in The Skinny, Sunday was just the Isles' second loss in their last 15 games on New Year's Eve (12-2-1), with the other loss coming in Colorado six years ago.  This was the second December 31st meeting between the Islanders and Penguins, with the Isles winning 6-1 in 2003 at Mellon Arena for their most one-sided New Year's Eve win. Jason Blake had two goals and two assists, while Garth Snow picked up the win and added an assist.

SOCIAL MEDIA MOMENT OF THE GAME

WHAT'S NEXT

The Islanders’ first game of 2024 will take place in Denver when they take on Devon Toews, Cale Makar, and the Colorado Avalanche. Face-off is set for 9:00 PM EST.