In the New York Islanders' first game of a fourth quarter without John Tavares, Michael Grabner (shorthanded) and Anders Lee each scored two goals, while Lubomir Visnovsky scored in overtime to finish a typically chaotic night between the Isles and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Visnovsky's goal came after an odd, bouncing clear from James van Reimsdyk landed right on Visnovsky's stick. If JVR gets that out clean, it's possibly a rush the other way. Instead, the rolling puck popped up on him, and the Isles' overtime victory came after both a third-period blown lead and a third-period comeback.
The first period was all kinds of fun: Eric Boulton had two, arguably three clear scoring chances, and his linemate Mike Halmo was in full "This is my first NHL game and I only have to hit people so this is awesome!" mode, his aggression also leading to good pressure.
Initially it appeared that MIchael Grabner is indeed cursed only on non-Olympic soil this year, as he had a sure breakaway that never was thanks to an overeager outlet by Brian Strait, then hit the post on a nice redirect of a Cal Clutterbuck feed.
But then the curse lifted, at least briefly, all in a 48-second span of the same penalty kill. First Jake Gardiner played with it too long, coughing it up to pressure from Grabner and Casey Cizikas, who slipped it back to Grabner for a nice stick-side goal.
Just before that same penalty kill expired, Jonathan Bernier went DiPietro on his own defense, coming out and holding the puck too long before sending an ill-advised backhand off Morgan Rielly's skate. Grabner easily swept the puck into the empty net for a 2-1 lead.
No really, thank you.
That all undid Phil Kessel's early goal, on a great top-corner shot after he was left alone at the top of the circle to receive a Tyler Bozak pass. Brock Nelson was defending the middle on the play, but you couldn't help notice Thomas Vanek drifting by.
First-period shots were 11-7 for the Isles, but things swung back as the second period progressed. James van Riemsdyk had two glorious chances, one disrupted by a timely and penalized Josh Bailey hook, the other stopped by Evgeni Nabokov after a nice high backhand.
David Clarkson tried to introduce Halmo to the NHL by straddling him in a hold illegal in most southern states, and Boulton dropped Tim Gleason on a couple of punches after Gleason crazily initiated a fight.
Grabner had a chance at a hat trick on another advance feed from Clutterbuck, but the chance was too close to a breakaway to be a conversion. Bernier gloved it, but the Islanders went to a power play thanks to Gardiner's hook on Clutterbuck. (They did nothing on the power play.)
Yet one more time, Grabner almost had a shorthanded breakaway, but his break was broken up by Dion Phaneuf playing with a broken stick. This is, of course, illegal so Phaneuf went to the box and would have felt shame, if he were capable of feeling shame.
It All Slips Away, Then It Doesn't, Then It Does, Then It Doesn't.
The third period had one of those narrative sequences that nag at you and toss you around until the game is over: "The Isles will blow this, I just know it."
The Isles fourth line created yet more pressure around the Leafs net, and Casey Cizikas had an open shot for an insurance goal but couldn't get enough on it. The Kessel line soon took advantage to go the other way and score, van Riemsdyk lofting one off the post from a bad angle while Ranger tapped in the rebound. Could have been 3-1; instead was 2-2.
...Aaaand soon 3-2 after a turnover in the Isles zone led to a one-timer for Dion Phaneuf, which got the Butch Goring "Nabokov didn't have a chance on that" seal of absolution. Nice shot, bad play, whatever. Leafs had taken the lead back.
Oh, but wait, your misery isn't getting off that easily.
Brock Nelson drew a penalty by ... well, by kinda keeping his feet moving and drawing contact without the puck. The Isles second unit went to work and, after an initial awful pass by Josh Bailey cleared the zone, worked a great series of diagonal passes -- I was about to fume they passed too much -- that was finished by Anders Lee with an open net at the top of the crease. Bailey was the conduit on the play from Calvin de Haan, so credit due on the tying goal, just 1:26 after the Leafs took the lead.
And a minute later, misery returned. Joffrey Lupul (sic) went unaccosted through the neutral zone against the top line and Visnovsky-Hickey pairing, then he slipped a changeup backhand past Nabokov's shoulder for the go-ahead goal. Again.
But no. Anders Lee won't have it, I tell you. With literally four Maple Leafs around him at the top of the crease, Lee converted a Ryan Strome pass from behind the net to tie it at 4-4. The puck squeezed behind Bernier's pads and over the line, and for once neither the refs nor Toronto (the Royal "NHL War Room" Toronto) could deny it.
Not to be out-Islander'd, the Isles almost squandered that yet again when they allowed Lupul to waltz this way and that around the zone. His cross-slot pass to Nazim Kadri set up a sure go-ahead goal until...IS THAT ANDREW MACDONALD'S MUSIC?
Yes, the now-maligned (raises hand) defenseman who blocks so many shots in part because he has so few pucks was great and stay-at-homey in saving Nabokov's bacon to preserve the tie through regulation.
Evening Themes and Questions
How did Brock Nelson look at first-line center?
Well, he's no John Tavares. He was played a little more conservatively though, getting more defensive zone draws than offensive zone draws. Speaking of which...
How did Ryan Strome look?
You saw his hands. He was calm in setting up the tying goal late in the third. His was the line sheltered with mostly O-zone opportunities. And on that note...
What was it like having Josh Bailey back at center?
People overlook it, but it's the defensive side of Bailey's game that actually has gotten better during his long professional adolescence. He still doesn't shoot enough, but he minds the store. That said, it was Nelson and Casey Cizikas' line used in the D-zone when the opportunities arose.
Meanwhile, Bailey's wingers Grabner and Clutterbuck made all kinds of hay together.
A year later, how did Anders Lee look?
Better! Of course he would, as the defensive awareness at the pro level was going to increase. He's a smart player, he used his body around the net well. He got veteran'd by Paul Ranger on a chance in front of the net, where Ranger put the ax handle down to keep Lee from cashing in one of Bernier's juicy rebounds. But then he scored two third-period tying goals from the same spot. Not bad.
And what about Mike Halmo, number 43 in your program and ... a different number in your heart?
See above, but he had all the jump of a guy in his first NHL game and all the physicality of a guy who knows banging bodies will be key to making sure it's not his last.