The New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers entertained as you'd expect: A fast game, with lots of shots and young talent on display. Outside of a lengthy shorthanded stretch in the middle period, the Isles had the better of play throughout and protected a third-period lead for the first time in three tries in defeating their guests, 3-2 at Nassau Coliseum.
The game's featured top picks, Taylor Hall set a franchise record and John Tavares performed some wizardry. But on a team vs. team level, the Isles outshot the Oilers 40-29 and generally delivered the kind of complete performance they've thus far found elusive this season.
If last weekend's road trip through the Central revealed an alarming dip in play, Tuesday night against the Sabres and tonight against the Oilers represent a progression in the opposite direction. Tuesday was a good performance undone by some late mistakes. Tonight was a better performance befitting the ol' "60 minutes" cliche.
First Period: Nice Start, Costly Brainfart
Travis Hamonic has made it a point to pinch in and carry the puck toward the net more often this season, and though it didn't yield a goal in several good forays on Tuesday night, tonight against the Oilers it produced the first goal. Hamonic's first pass from the corner was stopped and popped into the air, but the rebound kindly dropped back to his stick where he set up Josh Bailey to score from what is steadily becoming Bailey's office.
Six minutes later, in an Oilers record eight-second span, the wheels briefly came off. Taylor Hall finished a great cross-crease pass from Justin Schultz to tie it at 1-1. Then off the ensuing faceoff, a carom off the right wing boards was sent to the net by feel-good story (and Matt Donovan landlord) Mark Arcobello, where a speeding Hall escaped notice and beat all the Islanders to the rebound. Hall broke Wayne Gretzky's franchise record for fastest two goals by the same player.
Second Period: PK Holds, Top Line Leads
The Islanders power play went to work early in the second period to erase the first period's late mistakes. Kyle Okposo finished a pretty passing combo started by John Tavares via Matt Moulson at the goal line to tie it at 2-2 at 4:54.
But then, after outshooting the Oilers 16-7 in the first period, the Islanders had to survive three consecutive penalty kills in a seven-minute stretch in the middle of the second. With some passable work from the PK -- still eight shots on goal allowed -- and some fine work from Evgeni Nabokov, they did so.
In one memorable battle reminiscent of their Memorial Cup encounter, Taylor Hall crosschecked Travis Hamonic to gain space in front of the net, and Hamonic responded by dumping Hall to the ice as Nabokov's smother survived Hall's hack. Hamonic lives for these encounters, but Hall seems to thrive when challenged, so that battle could go either way.
Late in the period, Tavares took matters into his own hands by winning a board battle* with Boyd Gordon on the right wing and sending the puck to Kyle Okposo down low. Okposo was probably looking for Michael Grabner on the play, but his pass was disrupted enough to go into John Tavares' sphere in the low slot. That's generally not a place where an opponent wants Tavares to have the puck. He corralled it and unleashed the winner off the near post that Dubnyk would have been heroic to stop.
*Tavares' board work has gotten so good. He constantly escapes phone booths where I'm certain he's about to get crushed, then has remnant energy and presence of mind to make magnificent, deft touches with the puck.
Third Period: Lesson Learned?
The Islanders entered the third period with the lead regained, and happily they didn't let up. They fired the first 10 shots of the period and didn't let Edmonton sniff their zone until the halfway point.
However, the Islanders fourth line of Colin McDonald, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin got more exposure than I would prefer -- against Taylor Hall and against an Oilers third line that had Ales Hemsky creating openings and Ryan Smyth trying to finish around the net. (Aside: Amusing that the Coliseum fans still boo Smyth, who one could say forced the rebuild but also inadvertently brought about John Tavares.)
That use of the fourth line wasn't a big deal though, and perhaps it gave enough rest to the top two lines so that they could create multiple scoring chances as time wound down, ultimately forcing a penalty by Justin Schultz with 1:46 left in regulation.
Throughout the third, only a few close moments -- Smyth nearly stuffed one in but lost the handle -- could have given this game as jarring a turn as the shootout loss to the Sabres. But a large fraction of hockey turns on bounces one way or the other, and tonight the bounces would not undo the Isles effort.
Of course, that late Isles power play played it dangerously safe -- as if now, with the biggest advantage, they played the least assertively, including using Martin and Cizikas late. That approach resulted in a near-disastrous Hall rush down the left wing, where his shot past Andrew MacDonald missed the near post by inches. The Oilers then pulled their goalie for a fifth attacker, but offered no further threat.
An "oughta win," at last, securely in the books.
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- Recap - Buffalo Sabres 4*, New York Islanders 3 (*SO): Isles play victim for Buffalo's first win of 2013-14