Then they gave that lead up in a 1:43 span just seven minutes into the third.
The Islanders survived an early onslaught, mostly due to an early Panthers powerplay where Florida kept the puck in the zone for 1:20 and launched four shots on goal and more attempts that didn't make their way to Nabokov.
With that scare survived, the Isles went to work.
Kyle Okposo scored his first goal in forever after an actually effective forecheck by the second line following an Andrew MacDonald line entry. Frans Nielsen won the puck behind the net and found Okposo in the slot for a quick slapper.
That lead came late in the first period. A little over two minutes later, Radek Martinek extended it with a seeing-eye shot from the point after Mark Streit did well to pass against the grain from the right wing boards. The Isles entered the first intermission tied in shots at 9-9 but with a 2-0 lead that you had reason to think, against this opponent, they shouldn't relinquish.
...and continuing that modest thought, the top line picked up a fortunate goal just 33 seconds into the second period. With a scoring chance in tight, the puck slipped off Brad Boyes' stick, but Brian Campbell helpfully flubbed it back to the blade of Boyes, who gratefully sent it back to the net from a bad angle and caromed in.
Oh, but then it all hit the fan.
First a scramble in front ended when Panthers newcomer TJ Brennan popped the lose puck. Thirty-four seconds later, Marcel Goc finished a nice feed across the front of the net from Tomas Fleischmann in the corner.
That elicited a timeout from the Isles, but it didn't matter. A completely jumbled backcheck (and mixed line) by Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Frans Nielsen and defensemen Mark Streit and Radek Martinek resulted in an easy tap in for Mike Santorelli. Evgeni Nabokov's fat rebound and failure to notice where the rebound went did not help.
I don't want to say this was a pivotal point in their season, but the oft-repeated reality is this: The Islanders are hanging around the playoff bubble, with an opportunity to sweep two very beatable teams in Florida and goose their standings total, and here they were having blown a 3-0 lead in the blink of an eye. If they couldn't dig down and conjure whatever they needed to get that second point back...then they don't deserve even tempered playoff-aspiring attention.
Enter a magical shift by Casey Cizikas, Colin McDonald and Keith Aucoin. A solid "energy line" shift ended when Cizikas and McDonald completed a great 1-2 behind the net, McDonald reversing the flow after Cizikas' pass to come back behind the net and feed Cizikas, who still had work to do to get to the front, fight off a check and get the shot off.
Their relief-and-euphoric celebration fit the moment.
And that relief lasted, with the Isles bending and bending but not breaking or bad-bouncing under pressure during 1:30 of 6-on-5 hockey with the Panthers having pulled Scott Clemmensen.
That game was outright exhausting. It could have been and almost was a laugher, then it turned into ugliness fast and brought out all of Islanders' fans worst anxieties and fears.
Does the fact they diffused their third-period cluster-Avery mean this is a different Islanders team? No. But they won, they dodged a nightmare, they swept a trip to Florida for the first time in ages, and they've leaped ahead of the Rangers in the standings for this night at least. Amen.