Once again, the Islanders and Capitals played an entertaining game that teetered on a knife's edge until the final horn. This time, the right bounce for Matt Moulson or Michael Grabner on late third-period breakaways -- and not the right bounce off Nicklas Backstrom's foot for the game-winning goal -- would have turned things the other way. At least the Islanders' lone goal came from Nino Niederreiter, making him the youngest Islander and fourth-youngest player since the Original Six era to score an NHL goal.
In sum it was about what you'd expect from a close result between mismatched teams: The Islanders scored early on Nino Niederreiter's first NHL goal and looked good. They almost survived a Capitals' onslaught in the second, not conceding the equalizer until 18:19 of the middle period. The third was back and forth (at one point the broadcast put the scoring chances at 13 to 12 for the game, though that's probably too kind). A late powerplay from a weak call on a poor Blake Comeau decision set up Backstrom's game-winner, off an Alex Ovechkin slapshot, with just 3:49 left.
Given the lineup and the result, there was a lot to like about this game -- some of it by the name of Dwayne Roloson, Zenon Konopka and Radek Martinek.
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Martinek & Eaton vs. Ovechkin & Backstrom
Like last year, Martinek was placed against Ovechkin as much as possible (7+ ES minutes), though this year he was joined by new Islander but Atlantic vet Mark Eaton (8+ ES minutes vs. Ovechkin).
There is no neutralizing Ovechkin, there is only trying to keep him in less-threatening spaces. Unfortunately, one fallback option for a dangerous scorer is to use that against you by backing you into screening your own goalie. That was how Ovechkin got the tying goal, using Eaton as a screen and catching Roloson unset while trying to locate Ovi's blade position.
Dwayne Roloson: Still #1?
I'll be frank: I don't understand the rush to give Rick DiPietro the #1 role. If they wanted to start the new season off fresh, and run the once-and-future(?) Franchise Goalie in front of the home fans, that's one thing. I'd certainly rather DiPietro face the Stars and Rangers than the Capitals and Penguins. So if Roloson gets the game in Pittsburgh and DiPietro gets the next night at home, I can live with that.
But Roloson looked great tonight and was key to the successful PK whose only goal allowed was the Backstrom carom. I've nothing against DiPietro, but while the Islanders are still on a level standing with their peers I'd sure rather Roloson be the default starter and DiPietro work his way back slowly, to prove both his health and form. Tonight only reinforced that equation for me. (This is a man who is still getting rest days after game days, and spent training camp getting two days on, one day off, so the desire for caution isn't restricted to outside observers.)
The Isles powerplay didn't look very good and indeed missed James Wisniewski. The Capitals were a little more aggressive on the PK than previous opponents, but the Isles also had trouble moving the puck safely and may have suffered some choppy ice (as did both teams).
Andrew MacDonald made one nifty play to gain the zone, but also bobbled at the point (again, could be bad ice) in a way that lost the zone and almost cost him a shorthanded breakaway. Is he a preferable option to Jack Hillen in this backup role? Scott Gordon thinks so. I see more strengths in A-Mac's all-around game, where as I've always liked Hillen's puckhandling instincts.
The Islanders won 59% of their faceoffs, and Zenon Konopka went 16-4. 16 and 4! He is delivering as advertised, and it's helping the Isles PK get off to several right starts. He also played 2:40 on the PK, more than any other Islanders forward not named Frans Nielsen The Greatest Dane in Forever.
The Fighting Stuff
So that Konopka didn't have to, Trevor Gillies got three shifts and 1:16 and got in the obligatory fight with D.J. King after King plastered Andrew MacDonald and a Capitals teammate in one of those hit just to hit, teammates-be-damned maneuvers. King and Gillies were both in the lineup for that sort of thing, they're both widely liked by those who've played with them, and they both did the jobs this curious sport has provided them.
I wasn't looking for it, but I didn't notice much chippy/cheap stuff in the game. Just hard playing, good checking. Whether these two had anything to do with that is beyond my ability to infer cause and effect.
Michal Neuvirth made some very fine saves and certainly matched -- okay, technically bested -- Roloson's performance. With the game tied in the game's pivotal third-period stretch, Michael Grabner sped down the left wing for a partial breakaway that Neuvirth disrupted with a poke-check. Just before that, a bouncing puck sent Moulson on a breakaway, where a still-bouncing puck foiled Moulson's favorite shootout/breakaway move. A little earlier than those two exchanges, Frans Nielsen caught a puck on the doorstep, placed it on the ice, but couldn't slam it in or lift it high before a sprawling Neuvirth blocked the way.
I can't in good conscience fault the shooters for any of these misses. They were just the "win some, lose some" opportunities that turn a close game either way.
Aside: Of course after JP (VA chapter) and I were praising John Carlson before the game, Carlson goes and leaves Nino softly covered on his goal and then was the turnstile victim of Grabner's speed on his partial break. Doggone those young players, never living up to our hype quickly enough.
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All in all, a fun and entertaining night with a heartbreaking result (Comeau's penalty was soft, but his decision to initiate arms-high with the puck gone was unwise). Three cheers for Nino for finding space and getting his shot off quickly after Doug Weight's pass. Mama said there'd be days like this, but minus Tavares-Streit-Okposo-Schremp-Wisniewski days like this ain't so bad.