The New York Islanders picked up two points on opening night for the first time since 2007, going goal for goal (and goal per period) with the New Jersey Devils through three periods and one overtime before a lengthy but scoreless shootout ended with Matt Moulson's conversion.
His was the only shootout try out of 12 attempts to beat the two goalies, who at age 38 and 41 have qualified for their official "Wily Veteran" cards. It gave the Isles the tiebreaker victory, officially 4-3, and absolved the team of sins and lapses during an otherwise entertaining open to the season where several newcomers made positive first (or second) impressions for both teams.
This game had a season opener's chaotic feel to it, with the Isles both dangerous and sloppy at alternating times, and the Devils also sloppy but looking like they played last night and were determined to rebound from their shutout loss in Pittsburgh.
First Period: 1-1
The Devils opened scoring when Dainius Zubrus found space in the slot to shoot hard enough that the puck bounced off the top of Evgeni Nabokov's glove, dropped off the crossbar and landed for Damien Brunner to beat Travis Hamonic to the puck and knock it into an empty net.
Michael Grabner tied things on a self-created breakaway up the middle -- with a serious hat tip to Hamonic, who found him in stride with a diagonal through the neutral zone -- on a play where the Devils appeared to forget just how fast Grabner is. Even when he received Hamonic's pass, Grabner had two defensemen to beat. But he split them simply through acceleration, and Martin Brodeur flopped to anticipate a deke, only to see Grabner slide it under Brodeur's torso.
Second Period: 1-1 Too (2-2)
The Devils took the lead again in the second period on a broken play that put a bouncing puck right on Michael Ryder's stick in the high slot with an open look through traffic. He wisely tried upstairs on Nabokov (who probably never saw it through four bodies) and was rewarded.
Grabner tied it again, again using his speed as Josh Bailey slapped a clear up the right wing boards. This time Grabner didn't have room to cut in front of the angling Devils defenseman, but that didn't matter: His angle was enough to beat Brodeur low with 6:17 left in the middle frame.
Third Period: Yes, This Was 1-1 As Well (3-3)
Grabner featured in the go-ahead goal as well, on a pretty give-and-go alliance of Underrated Small European Hockey Countries. His combo with Frans Nielsen began with a diagonal neutral zone pass from Matt Donovan, and was finished by Nielsen on a crafty backhand that took advantage of Brodeur's advancing age and apparent difficulty bending down as easily as he once did.
The Devils got it back however, converting six minutes later just after the expiration of a power play where they held play in the Isles zone for nearly the entirety. The Isles threatened to reclaim the lead quickly: Kyle Okposo hit the post on a two-on-one, and Grabner created yet another breakaway for himself by deceptively taking a Frans Nielsen pass off his skate to fool Marek Zidlicky. But this time Brodeur stopped the low shot.
The Islanders then had their best of two power plays on the night, forcing Brodeur into several scrambles but never finding the kill shot. Brock Nelson set up Pierre-Marc Bouchard for a great backhand tap on a rushed 2-on-1, but Martin Brodeur made a highlight pinwheel toe save that will ensure broadcasters insist "he's still got it" for at least another few months.
Overtime: 0-0 (3-3)
Nothing too remarkable here, though Hamonic dangerously coughed the puck up behind the net late in OT, a mistake that nearly led to a golden Devils chance if not for the Danish Intervention of Nielsen.
In the shootout, some notables: Evgeni Nabokov did well to stop a Brunner backhand deke, while Nielsen's own backhand was judged to be flubbed wide. Nabokov actually stretched the left pad on two attempts, including Patrik Elias' sneaky try. Josh Bailey hit the post, but Matt Moulson finally ended the the six-round shootout with its only conversion, a forehand just inside the stick-side post.
- Brunner and Ryder certainly made their mark for the Devils, each tallying and helping New Jersey forget Ilya Kovalchuk for this night. Hamonic's pass on Grabner's goal eluded Jaromir Jagr's reach.
- For the Isles, Brock Nelson impressed with several little maneuvers on a line with fellow new lineup members Peter Regin and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Nelson nearly had his first point when he intercepted Martin Brodeur in Rick DiPietro mode. But the puck got caught in Nelson's skates until he ended up behind the net, and Brodeur recovered.
- Nelson also took a costly retaliatory hooking penalty on Steve Bernier shortly after the Isles took a 3-2 lead in the third period, which led to Brunner's goal that tied it at 3-3 seconds after the penalty ended.
- Donovan was good and calm with the puck -- as billed, essentially. His role is clearly to look for the offensive opportunities from the back end, and he did so even beyond his assist.
- Hybrid Icing: I didn't mind it, and it should make the game safer. Seems odd to make the call so late (the hashmarks) rather than the top of the circles, however. One year-ending (or worse) injury per year is too many.
So it was a sloppy night but also an exciting one, a refreshing contrast to other recent early-season tilts with the Devils. Two things that stood out to this viewer:
- The Islanders' third line poses real danger and competence with the puck, which is nice considering Michael Grabner is no longer on it.
- Although there was enough messy play to go around, something that survived the end of last season was an organized, sharp breakout once the Isles regained possession in their zone. The Isles support one another on those breakouts and make calm passes under pressure. That was a key to their revival last season and will be necessary to sustain it in the new year.
And you, dear reader? What did you like, what did you hate, what did you see or swear you think you saw?