Yet with under two minutes to play this one was in doubt.
That's when Mark Streit altered his puck pursuit route at the last second to avoid chasing the puck carrier behind the net, running into the net behind Evgeni Nabokov and getting called for a Flatley dubious penalty ... shot.
Yes, under five minutes left apparently makes that call an automatic penalty shot. Thankfully Tomas Vanek hit the post, allowing the Islanders to preserve the 3-2 lead and even let Michael Grabner add to it with an empty net goal to seal a game they Flatley deserved to win. It was Evgeni Nabokov's 300th NHL victory.
The Islanders forecheck was eating the sloppy Sabres alive, but their finishing was falling short and it looked like the road team on the tired half of a back-to-back might steal this. But persistent pressure finally paid off and Michael Grabner finished a scramble with 3:03 left in regulation to grab that lead.
It was among many highlights. It's hard to judge just how much to read into any specific highlights since the Sabres definitely looked like the tired or careless opponent, but the Islanders have impressively controlled play for three home games in a row.
It's not on the stat sheet, but it was a very nice night for Josh Bailey, who created turnovers and scoring chances all night long, in every period. Good presence of mind to recover the puck and make a backhand move on his first-period takeaway but Enroth robbed him with the glove (and Bailey's backhand, though high enough, probably needed to go a little further to the far post).
Not a bad night from Nino Niederreiter either, as he showed lots of little offensive, puck control, and defensive coverage glimpses that indicate progress for the 19-year-old. An interference penalty during a goalmouth scramble could have hurt with the score tied 2-2 in the third, but his instincts were in the right place.
The PK unit did well to pick him up, as that could've easily been a frustrating turning point.
Bullets and Such
- Holy cow Matt Martin, accepting the invitation to fight from giant Joe Finley. Not only that, Martin hung in there long after he could have cried "Uncle" as the big 6'8" guy sat back and relied on his reach to counterpunch. [Fight video at Hockeyfights.com]
- Patrick Kaleta met Andrew MacDonald on a 50/50 puck and laid a big check, drawing a poor call for charging. The Isles didn't convert on the powerplay (mostly at the beginning of the second period), but it was nice to see them get an officiating break. And though it was a bad reputation call for Kaleta, well ... I guess that's one reason not to carve out such a well-earned reputation.
- Every Islander but Steve Staios and Mark Eaton had a shot on goal. Travis Hamonic and Grabner had five each. (Grabner also hit the crossbar in what was about to look like a cursed third period.)
- MNM: Mandatory Nabokov Mishandle (Keith's term): After the Islanders grabbed the 2-1 lead on a nice play by Matt Moulson to make space for a streaking Kyle Okposo, Nabokov quickly gave it back with a properly intended but poorly executed pass behind the net for Mark Streit.
- Moulson also scored the first goal of the game (again), on a play that John Tavares somehow created both at the blueline and just moments later at the doorstep of the goal, drawing everyone as he collected the puck and calmly feeding Moulson for an uncontested one-timer.
- Oh yeah, speaking of which: Another night, another two points for Tavares. That's points in 8 straight for him, 15 overall in that span on 4 goals and 11 assists. With 42 on the season, he's back up to a point per game (and a minus-1, incidentally).
In case you didn't pick up on my Flatley cheesy and gratuitous references, it was Patrick Flatley night, as the former captain entered the Islanders Hall of Fame. Nice, quick ceremony beforehand (complete with Mark Streit getting the memo late to come out and congratulate him before Flatley led the team to the ice). Howie Rose really excels at emceeing these deals.
Cool to see the old teammates show up, including Mick Vukota as Flatley's invited guest to read his plaque, and the gang of classic Isles and friends in Flatley's box. He appeared to genuinely enjoy the treatment, and that's what these nights are about.
They talked over the game, which is unfortunate, but some of Patrick Flatley and Butch Goring's riffing with each other in the booth during the second period was worth the few minutes of intermittent play by play. They also aired a few snippets of the old "Heals and Flats Show" (or is it "Flats and Heals," heh). Among many highlights: The sweaters. Goodness, the sweaters.
Another highlight was an anecdote about Al Arbour [thanks to KO21 and afrosupreme for reminding me]. Butch Goring had asked Flatley if the Islanders asked him to change specific parts of his game for the NHL after he joined the team from Wisconsin and the Canadian national team. Here's how Flatley told it:
"One of my first games, I came over the blueline and made a drop pass. The drop pass didn't work out that well -- the pass was intercepted from someone on the other club.
Next morning in practice Al comes up and says, 'Hey Pat, that was a nice drop pass. You like that play?' And I go, 'Yeah' -- I didn't think it was that bad, too bad it didn't work out that time.
So Al goes: 'Pat, on this team Mike Bossy makes drop passes. Pat Flatley? He gets it deep. Do we understand each other?'
I said, 'Yep.'"
[Howie interjects: Did you ever make another drop pass? "Nope."]
* * *
It was expected and perhaps even required given the circumstances, but everyone played well tonight. Strong effort all around -- a few breakdowns, of course -- and the Isles controlled play against an opponent who was vulnerable and ripe for such a display. That was their task, it was hairy until the end, but tonight they got it done.