With a three-day break between games, the New York Islanders had the chance to come out with compelling force, but the New Jersey Devils' eagerness to fix their effort from Sunday afternoon kept that from happening. A close game through two periods -- the Islanders even outshooting the Devils 19-11 through two -- became a blowout once Ilya Kovalchuk blew it open with his
first [second ... had one Feb. 14] hat trick of the season.
The game was still winnable -- or at least tie-able and Bettman-point-able -- early in the third period but Martin Brodeur made the saves and the Devils simply stomped on the Isles the rest of the way.
With Alexei Ponikarovsky back in the lineup, the Devils were able to roll a much more balanced attack to wear down the Isles. Gone was the dead weight of Cam Janssen -- yes, somehow the enforcer's presence last game did not cause unprotected Islanders to drop -- and though Michael Grabner also did not appear Sunday thanks to the flu, the now-healthy scratch's presence and speed was missed on this night.
Ilya Kovalchuk hit the side of the goal on a great backdoor pass that forced a big stretch from Evgeni Nabokov. Unfortunately the rebound came off the boards right back to Kovy, and this time he made sure to bury it with a pretty finish past the reach of Nabokov's leg and Travis Hamonic's stick.
Kovalchuk struck again when he drew a penalty driving to the net -- the Steve Staios Trip of the Night -- and then finished quickly with a one-timer on the ensuing powerplay.
Andrew MacDonald got one back with a shot from below the goal line in the Devils zone. Yes, from below the goal line. Josh Bailey's shot slipped just wide but MacDonald was in the left wing corner to pick up the rebound and flutter it toward the net before Martin Brodeur could reset. Bank shot, off Brodeur's back and in.
And you'd take it. The Devils had the slightly better run of play up to that point, but both teams exchanged shots and chances and it could've been anyone's lead, simply turning on two nice plays by Kovalchuk until MacDonald's goal.
Which set up the chance for a one-goal comeback in the third ... but no.
The Islanders mounted some pressure in the third -- "pushback" as the kids are calling it these days -- and were a Martin Brodeur shoulder away from tying the game.
But the critical next goal went to the Devils. Milan Jurcina was slow to retrieve a harmless non-icing dump into the Isles zone, resulting in Devils pressure that carried through the next line change. A delayed penalty was on its way and the Devils pulled Brodeur to create 6-on-5. Nabokov stopped a long shot but Jay Pandolfo let Patrik Elias get two swipes at the rebound, the second one being plenty enough.
Before the scorers decided whom to credit with assists on that goal, Kovalchuk brought down the hats with a laser from the blueline. Ballgame.
The Lines: Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic saw the majority of the Zach Parise line again and were victimized on Kovalchuk's first goal. The Devils mostly avoided power vs. power but the few times that line faced the John Tavares line, they took turns creating fireworks on both sides. Mostly it was Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora against Tavares.
Most disturbing though was the first-period shift where David Clarkson was a one-man puck hog below the Islanders goal, keeping the puck from the Tavares line and single-handedly creating a scoring chance. Clarkson had a fine game and was rewarded with the final goal in garbage time.
The 3-on-1: David Ullstrom showed nice speed again, and that line had some nice action at times in the first half of the game. They messed up a 3-on-1 though, created by a deft move by Frans Nielsen at the Isles blueline. Trailer Nielsen fed Ullstrom on the left wing, and Ullstrom forced a pass for Josh Bailey that didn't get through. The recovery was fed hard to Bailey, who whiffed.
John Tavares has yet to score on the Devils this season. Maybe he's due?
Please Scratch: Would like to see Grabner Saturday, but also Dylan Reese in favor of Milan Jurcina, who had another one of those immobile, slow-decision-making games. As a team, the Islanders were slow to pucks in their own zone, but of course the most frequent culprits were the members on the lower ends of their 18-man roster.
Also: Oddly, the fourth line created some of the modest pressure in the first period, but Pandolfo has hands of stone. I didn't have a problem with Marty Reasoner's game -- even his penalty was some change-of-direction-in-traffic tough luck -- but Pandolfo is not needed for the fourth line nor for the PK if Michael Grabner is back in the lineup.
Power Play: The powerplay came up short again against one of the best PK units in the league. That really would've helped. Their first powerplay, in the first period, was fantastic an generated three shots on goal. Puck moved around well and forced saves from Brodeur. The next one was barely able to get the puck into the Devils' end of the ice. The third and final powerplay of the 0-for-3 night ended with the biggest of insults: A too many men penalty in no small part due to Frans Nielsen being frustrated and slow to get off the ice.
Passenger Alert!: Yes, Jack Capuano believes there were passengers.
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I'm not in the "they didn't come out to play for a big game" camp, nor even in the "too many passengers" camp really. They played a good opponent that's playing well, and the Islanders simply didn't field their best roster.
Despite outshooting the Devils through two periods, that disparity in depth wore the Isles down and deflated their remaining spirit as the game got away in the third period. The recipe for close Islanders wins this season was still there as late as five minutes into the third: Hang on, get a PP goal or a Tavares bit of magic and see what happens. Neither arrived, however, and the Devils' depth superiority broke the game away.
Great excuse to make some changes for the rubber match Saturday.