The New York Islanders drew first blood in a miniseries with their crosstown rivals, beating the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in the first of three meetings in 10 days surrounding their outdoor matchup at Yankee Stadium.
The teams top lines traded chances and rushes all night -- John Tavares was on for six total goals, Rick Nash on for five -- but the Isles made their final chance stand up when Thomas Vanek scored the game-winning power play goal with 4:38 left to go. Frans Nielsen added an empty net goal in the final seconds, but the path to that 5-3 final score was a great appetizer for the two rematches to come.
By run of play, the Isles started strongly, however this one opened like they all seem do these days -- a 2-0 lead for their opponents. Other familiar notes included a solid comeback effort and some points salvaged by a team that almost seems to enjoy playing from behind.
The Rest of the Story
The two early goals each came on Rick Nash's stick, one when the top line simply lost him in coverage, the other when he stayed floating at center ice after another back-and-forth sequence. He was wise to float: The Isles shot attempt caromed around the boards and neither Matt Donovan nor Andrew MacDonald sniffed that he still lurked behind them. He converted on the breakaway, a great long-stick deke on Kevin Poulin.
Matt Martin got one back on the first of several mid-line-change goals, converting from the slot on a beautiful move and pass by John Tavares behind the net, opened up by good forechecking from that non-Olympian Kyle Okposo. Good thing the Garden isn't Olympic ice.
It's been a while since we've had a go here at the referees -- though they've asked for it in several recent games -- but tonight was inexplicable officiating. Just no idea what they're calling from one moment to the next, and it felt like they were constantly torn on whether to do make-up calls do undo their previous gaffes. It ended up five power plays aside, though the calls appeared picked out of a hat.
The signature officiating moment, at least from an Isles perspective, was after the Isles had done well to kill off a Rangers penalty in the second period. Moments later, a very tame goalmouth scrum resulted in Matt Martin somehow taking the lone penalty, sending the Isles PK out there again. They didn't survive that one, and Chris Kreider's tap-in made it 3-1.
Kreider Tempts the Hockey Gods
Kreider, as kids are wont to do these days, "scooped the ice" in celebration of this gimme goal, the epitome of right place, right time. The hockey gods do not look kindly on such silliness, and Kreider would later hear from them.
His goal doubled the task ahead for the Isles, but as mentioned they apparently like two-goal deficits just find. Within seven minutes, they matched that task.
First Thomas Hickey finished a nice cross-ice-and-back passing play between Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo, Hickey appearing at the doorstep to tap in. Then another mixed-line counterattack resulted in Peter Regin setting up John Tavares for a shot, the rebound of which landed in the slot for Colin McDonald to wheel and fire top corner to tie it at 3-3 before the second period.
Despite the tie score, the third period was played no more carefully -- shots were 14-13 for the Isles, marked by golden opportunities for both sides.
The most frightening resulted in no official shot at all: Kyle Okposo is by far the hardest backchecker on that top line, but Thomas Vanek chose the right moment to uncharacteristically get on his horse and nullify a Nash breakaway -- a chance made possible by Vanek losing the handle on the puck at the Rangers blueline. Vanek got back well enough to pull off a stick check without taking a penalty and without conceding a shot.
The hockey gods came for Kreider late in the third, when he jumped the ice too soon and interfered with Vanek on a zone entry. That would have been fine had Kreider not been the sixth Rangers skater on the ice. He went to the box and Vanek made a nice play in front to kick the puck up to his blade for the winner.
Le Pant, Le Pant, Le Pant
The fourth line's final shift was, whew. Just whew. They got caught out for a long one, yet they also handled it the way you must when ultimately a man down (the Rangers pulled Talbot for a sixth attacker during the shift) and fatigued: They kept things to the outside and didn't play themselves out of position too badly in their desperate heaves to get the puck out. Kevin Poulin helped. Matt Martin took a good 10 seconds to return to his feet after the puck mercifully went out of play.
It was another three goals against for the Isles and for the Kevin Poulin Scramblin' Adventure, but he stood tall through traffic, located rebounds, and made two particularly memorable saves that kept the game from getting away -- once on a Kreider solo attempt in front (the gods speak) and another on a Nash one-timer that would have given the former Blue Jacket a hat trick. Credit where credit is due for the raw skilled but too often "acrobatic" goalie.
Come Back, Come Again
I don't know that there is anything particular conclusive to explain the Isles' poor starts and/or conceding leads in the first period, and tonight is no exception: They were outshooting and outchancing the Rangers yet trailed 2-0 to two mistakes that Rick Nash cashed in. Basically, the Isles are a fairly dangerous offensive team that is porous defensively on a collective level and rarely gets save-your-bacon goaltending. That leads to trading chances and entertaining comeback attempts, win or lose.
Thank Bossy and bless Potvin, tonight's was a win.
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