The New York Islanders fell behind early, in keeping with a trend they've recently managed to overcome, but on this night the deficit was too much as their seven-game road winning streak ended with a 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers.
The Isles again played like a team that thinks it's never out of it, but tonight they were, with Tim Thomas and Scottie Upshall among others making sure of it. While Kevin Poulin initially kept it from getting away from the Isles before the dam broke, Thomas kept the Islanders at bay most of the night until a push in the final 21 minutes of regulation got the Isles half way there.
At various times, Thomas robbed Kyle Okposo, John Tavares (five shots), Ryan Strome, Matt Martin, and who can count how many others. To be fair, Poulin had his own acrobatics to make sure it never got worse than 4-0, if that makes sense. Four goals against on 26 shots doesn't do his night justice.
That Escalated Quickly.
It started with unfortunate hilarity, Andrew MacDonald colliding with a Panther as he tried to break out of the zone in the first minute of play. The two of them collectively taking out Kyle Okposo to create a 2-on-1 for the Panthers. MacDonald did his best to get back into the play, but he was close only because ex-Isle Brad Boyes made what is usually "one pass too many" except when it's "ooh, that was pretty" -- which it was on this occasion, setting up rookie Aleksander Barkov for an easy goal.
It was nearly 2-0 when Jonathan Huberdeau had a clear breakaway coming out of the box, but Poulin stopped his deke when he did the splits for the first of what seemed like 10 times on this night.
Though the Isles had a mostly bad first period, they did well to kill off a lengthy 5-on-3 after Frans Nielsen held Tomas Fleischmann's stick, having his own knocked out of his hands. Without Nielsen available, John Tavares actually was the high man to help kill the two-man advantage. (Then afterward, Matt Carkner came out of the box to uncomfortably display his skating as the second PK forward while play continued without a whistle.)
However, they couldn't translate that effort into an equalizer, and instead things got worse. Much worse.
First Drew Shore got a fortunate goal (bouncing off Brian Strait's skate), which resulted from good work and a "why not?" spinaround shot toward the crease. Then with just over 30 seconds left in the period, Scottie Upshall made a nice play to intercept Kyle Okposo's breakout, feeding big Nick Bjugstad to make a power move and then lift it upstairs on Kevin Poulin. It was 3-0 at the first intermission.
Shots were even at 10-10 in the second period -- not good when trying to erase a 3-0 deficit -- and instead of a power play helping the Isles chip away, it resulted in a shorthanded goal on another outstanding Upshall play, first when he won a bouncing puck from Andrew MacDonald at the blueline, then when he jammed his second effort past Poulin after the Isles goalie stopped the initial try. That made it 4-0 and game over, surely
Your Nightly Road Comeback? Not This Time.
However, as they've done throughout this maddening-yet-rewarding (save for tonight) string of road games, the Isles sure made it interesting after falling behind. Tonight the 4-0 deficit seemed intuitively insurmountable, yet a late second-period goal by the fourth line gave hope, a Thomas Vanek goal early in the third period opened a glimmer of possibility, and a non-stop series of traded chances in the rest of the third -- even shorthanded ones while the Isles killed a four-minute high-sticking penalty on Calvin de Haan -- made you think maybe, just maybe, if not for Tim Thomas.
I'm not sure what was more impressive: That the Panthers gave up so many chances at 4-2 while on the power play, or that Michael Grabner, Casey Cizikas and the PK brigade generated so many. Then again, the Panthers haven't scored on the power play since 2013, going back seven games, so maybe that wasn't a feat. (Aside: Less impressive than the Isles or the Panthers power play, by far, was the ice. I can't remember seeing the puck bounce so much, from opening faceoff through at least the first two periods.)
The Isles, relying mostly on the first line plus Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Nielsen, showed good work during two minutes of sixth-attacker time -- why can't they do that when they only need one goal? -- which kept it entertaining through the end, but that's it.
Honestly, the Isles have had luck go their way during this road winning streak, so it was only fitting that the hockey gods remind them what November felt like. Impressive energy and skating in their collective attempt to crawl back, but this time the damage was already too much.
And since everything bad happened through November and most of December, this result means the Panthers have pulled even with the Isles for, ah, yes for 14th in the Eastern Conference.
Life without Hamonic
With Travis Hamonic out injured ("day to day"), the hope here was that the Isles would lean more on Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey. However, de Haan ended up with six minutes in penalties, and he, Hickey and every other Isles defenseman played under 20 minutes except Andrew MacDonald, who played nearly 29:39 total, including 6:03 on the PK and 3:39 on the power play. The rest of the blueline PP time was carried by Donovan (2:21), de Haan (just 0:29) and the usual rotation of fourth forwards.
That said, tonight wasn't a failing placed on blueline deployment or anything like that. Each goal against had it's own story of stink or misfortune (or both), while the frenzied comeback attempt and its PK interruptions made what was otherwise an ugly night at least entertaining to the end.