It's 42 now. The New York Islanders have 42 points after 39 games, which isn't a lot but could be a pace that's just enough as they battle in an increasingly entertaining chase for the Eastern Conference's lower* playoff seeds.
*And the #3 seed, for whichever Southeast team outlasts its rivals.
Tonight the added two more points to get up to 42 by winning a tight, nerve-wracking battle with the Tampa Bay Lightning where they never trailed but always looked like it could slip away. The Isles held three one-goal leads, the last and difference-making one coming off a Matt Martin longshot with just 6:26 remaining.
A good Lightning shift and some tough Isles luck (a pick here, interference there) tied it at 2-2 four minutes into the third period, but the Isles pushed once more and registered nine of the game's final 10 shots as they outshot Tampa 28-21 overall. The Lightning pulled Ben Bishop with over a minute left, but the Isles tied things up in the neutral zone, blocked shots, and stuck with the Lightning's stars as they tried to pull off heroic individual efforts.
Said Martin in the post-game, on-ice interview, garnering an ovation: "A sellout crowd ... I really feed off the energy of the crowd. We wan to make the playoffs this year and we want to go on a run, and that's what we're going to do."
That's the hope. The way things have been going lately, a lot of fans believe it can happen
In which Stan Fischler asks Josh Bailey what he knows about Ace Bailey...
Sadly, Matt Moulson's ironman streak is over. The late-bloomer and constant wingman of John Tavares had a flu that was too much for even him to play through, so the streak had to give way after 284 mostly excellent games.
His replacement was none too shabby though: Michael Grabner filled in on the top line and was dangerous on the penalty kill -- as usual -- as well as at even strength. He scored the first goal at even strength after a Lightning turnover that Tavares helped create. Grabner's look and shot selection at Bishop was fantastic, blasting it top corner on the glove-side of the 6'7" goalie with the Senators mask.
With Moulson out, two new, big wings were in: Jesse Joensuu for his first game of the season -- wearing the disorienting uniform #6 -- and Anders Lee for the second game of his career. Joensuu showed his new approach on hockey life by using his size to just drive the net and create trouble behind the opposing net in his 10:49 of ice time. Lee showed he's still a work in progress at this level -- in defensive reads and in using his body against a league full of men -- and skated just 6:49. Lee did get the primary assist on Martin's game-winner as he helped send Martin through the neutral zone.
The Isles ended each period with the lead, but gave it up about four minutes into the second and the third. The first time, Vincent Lecavalier gave them fits and reversed the play behind the net to fool all six Isles on the ice -- and give Richard Panik an unchecked opportunity into a gaping net.
The second time, Evgeni Nabokov had lost his stick and the Isles got hemmed in mid-line change. Skating with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, Lee was the only one who completed the change -- on for Josh Bailey -- but was victim at the right point and chasing Matt Carle as a stickless Nabby stopped the initial shot, but couldn't gather the rebound. The Lightning kept that shift alive with some impressive picks, as they are wont to do.
But this time it was Martin's turn to take the glory. He carried over the Lightning blueline, then made a 90-degree cut to shake the coverage, and timed his shot from distance just as Lightning defenders and a net-crashing Casey Cizikas provided a screen.
Jubilation, followed by six minutes of chants and chewed nails at the Coliseum.
- Can't let this one go without admiring continued good work from the Nielsen-Okposo-Bailey line, and Okposo in particular was creative on Bailey's goal that made it 2-1. Okposo circled part of the zone, Blake Comeau-Orbit style, but put his stick moves to good use as he curled back down the slot and disrupted the Lightning coverage. He ended up near the corner (also rather Comeau-esque), but had drawn enough to find Bailey in front of the net, who collected the puck and backhanded past Bishop after winning the battle.
- Benoit Pouliot's value has been debatable thus far in his career, which is why the 2005 4th overall pick is on his fourth team, having been traded twice and allowed to walk once. But man, tonight you saw why teams have seen potential in him. When he gets going with the puck and using his size to tire defenders out in the offensive zone, he's a handful.
- Maybe Casey Cizikas can only hold his feet as well as, say, Steven Stamkos (who drew two penalties in this game), but even granting that I saw at least four occasions where he should have drawn a penalty.
- Seriously, despite multiple takedowns of Tavares, the Isles had one powerplay. It came on a Radko Gudas thunderfest that could have been called about three different infractions. You thought there might be more, especially after borderline calls drawn by Stamkos fed the Lightning two opportunities in the first. But mostly, the refs let them play.
- Sweet, hard check by Thomas Hickey on Richard Panek as Panek tried to sneak down the right wing boards with 100 seconds left. Hickey has used his body smartly all season, despite the size mismatch he usually faces.
- Andrew MacDonald's empty netter to seal it was just a fine all-around play and just reward for AMac staying with Lecavalier on his cut across the zone and stripping Lecavalier of the puck. As he fell to his knees, MacDonald launched the puck airborne, out of the zone and right to the center of the empty Lightning net.
- Heh, the Lightning were offside a lot.
- Despite their multiple, multiple threats, Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier registered one shot each. Stamkos had six of his attempts blocked -- and hurled one great powerplay setup from St. Louis wide -- which is consistent with how the Isles tried to contain him. There were multiple attempts that ramped off Islanders' sticks and out of play. Well played, mostly.
A good, professional effort by the Isles, who sweep the season series from the Lightning for the first time since 2001-02 which ... what happened that year again?
A beautiful atmosphere at the Coliseum too. But much more to do. The Smurfs won, the Devils and Flyers lost (all in regulation), so we'll let Nabby take it away:
It's the discipline & little things. We can't get ahead of ourselves. It's going to take a lot of work & we have a tough schedule ahead.
Nine more games to go.