A key to holding a third-period lead and hanging on for a 3-1 win: The New York Islanders penalty kill was once again both strong and fortunate, keeping the Winnipeg Jets to just two registered shots on three full powerplays.
Even strength was another story -- the Jets outshooting the Isles 36-24 (including 2-0 on a 4-on-4) to make it another night of playing careful and hoping to hang on as Evgeni Nabokov held the fort.
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[Post-game audio from Illegal Curve]
It would be 37 saves for Nabokov overall, the usual suspects Matt Moulson (powerplay goal), John Tavares (the assist) and P.A. Parenteau (game-winning goal) joining him in the familiar recipe for narrow victory.
Fortunately, all wins count the same, except in this case a regulation win almost counts more: The clean two points means the Islanders pull to within two of the Jets in the Eastern Conference standings.
First Period: The Islanders were outplayed, outshot 16-10, lucky to emerge down only 1-0. They certainly had their chances, but for every chance the created they gave up one if not two. Very slow to adjust to the Jets' frequently pinching D. The low point, though, was the Jets checking line hemming the Islanders first line in their zone and finally cashing in with a goal, Chris Thorburn knocking in a rebound while Steve Staios observed proceedings.
Second Period: Better. The early powerplay goal from Matt Moulson helped. It was a beauty of a play, with Moulson knocking down an elevated clear with his stick blade, passing it to John Tavares, who passed it right back to Moulson with the Jets defense still adjusting. Moulson smartly fired right away as the Jets tried to regroup. Ron Hainsey, who made the initial intercepted clear, may have also had Moulson's shot deflect off his skate.
Third Period: It turned even earlier, with an even strength goal by P.A. Parenteau off a very nice fake shot and pass from Milan Jurcina (!). The rest of the period was a mix of bizarre officiating decisions (both call, and non-call) while the Islanders penalty kill hung on twice.
Brian Rolston Makes a Play: We give Rolston gruff here because ... well it depends on the complainer, actually. For me it's the slowed speed and slowed decision-making: He had one shift tonight in which he made two smart interceptions, but each time was unable to cash them in for much because a speedier opponent was on him before he made his next move. Step forward, step back. But credit where it's due: He helped create the play on Parenteau's goal, both on zone entry and in digging the puck out and getting it to Parenteau (who fed Jurcina). In the NHL scorekeeping world, that registered as a second assist.
Oh, No, Two-on-Oh! Nino Niederreiter had a subordinate rookie moment and Marty Reasoner had a goal-less struggling fourth liner moment when the two conducted a 2-on-0 without recording an official shot on goal.
To be fair, Reasoner at least hit the post with his shot glove side, but neither of them handled it in ideal fashion. Niderreiter was the initial puck handler and swept the early pass to Reasoner -- but then stopped skating hard as if to say, "Here, veteran, you take it," letting the chasing defenseman catch up to a point where his stick was a threat to break up any pass. On a 2-on-0 you at least want to give the goalie reason to *think* there might be a passing play, but Nino's near-submissiveness made it pretty clear who would take the shot, and Reasoner didn't shift the puck around to at least give Ondrej Pavelec the impression he might force it to an increasingly covered Nino.
Ness Nice: Aaron Ness is showing us what Staios and Milan Jurcina cannot: Speed heals. Paired again with Andrew MacDonald, Ness' speed and sharp turns got the Isles out of trouble on multiple occasions and sustained plays going the other way. He is small and will have his trouble during big physical battles -- and we don't even know how polished his defensive instincts are yet -- but his mobility helps prevent fires before they can happen.
Ness was again the third-most used defenseman, logging 18:21 essentially all at even strength again. It's way too early to rush to interpretation, but I think we might know where this is heading. Pairing with MacDonald and logging those minutes isn't quite sheltering; it just might be trust.
Jack Capuano on Ness, via the Illegal Curve post-game audio links (also have Nabokov, MacDonald, Parenteau interviews) above:
He’s a quick — an elusive kind of guy, but tonight his gap was really good. He took away time and space. He held the blueline against a lot of their good players, his stick was really active, I was really impressed."
From those audio links, Nabokov on the team being patient and poised:
"It's always like this, once you get to February and March, that's what you're going to get. It's almost playoff games. You have to realize the situation, realize the pressure, who you're playing against, all those little things."
Line Matching: Tonight, there was no real matching of D pairs like Ness-AMac against specific lines, but the Frans Nielsen line and the Bryan Little line faced each other more often than not. John Tavares (or is it John Tenacity?) created some chances on his own, but his line was better contained by the Thorburn line than you'd like. I think his wingers were more to blame for that than he was.
Pandolfo Gets Islanders Face: NHL Network host on Jay Pandolfo's self-inflicted faceplant into the post/crossbar joint: "How long has Jay Pandolfo been in the NHL? He's gotta know there's a net there!" Fortunately Pandolfo was okay.
Announcing High: Always fun to have Jiggs McDonald back in the booth. And Patrick Flatley, doing the sideline again for this one, has added a lot to every Islanders broadcast he's done this year.
Stephen Waka-Waka Walkom* Does It Again: After a nice shift of sustained pressure in the Islanders zone in which Nik Antropov was a Godzilla along the boards swatting Andrew MacDonald away like some futile police helicopter, he finishes the sequence by plastering P.A. Parenteau into the glass from behind after Parenteau cleared the puck out of the zone.
The call(s)? Two minutes on Antropov for "interference" and two minutes on Parenteau for "diving" or "embellishing" as they announced it over the P.A. Incompetence like that is undeserving of a paycheck, even from the NHL.
*Credit to reader jtdolphins for that moniker, I believe
Later, in the third, up 2-1: A well executed 3-on-2 by the Nielsen line is disrupted when Frans Nielsen (without the puck) is hurled into the net by Mark Stuart. No interference. Not a minute afterward, Brian Rolston is called for a trip at the blueline in which Alex Burmistrov clearly ... oh, what's the word ... embellished? This is the NHL. I have no idea what the officials are seeing at any given moment. We're clearly returning to the world where refs let random things go and randomly insert themselves to fill their quota.
Almost Iced: John Tavares led an even-man rush down the right wing and was afforded space to shoot instead of pass. He hit the post. Four more minutes awaited.
Almost Iced II: With two minutes left, the first line was again hemmed in, with Evgeni Nabokov having to make a couple of big saves and accept the fortune of some shots going wide. Tavares just about willed the puck out of the zone and overpowered big Dustin Byfuglien to singlehandedly create a scoring chance. Save, Pavelec.
Finally Iced: Beautiful, beautiful play by Parenteau to chase down a soft dump with the Jets goalie pulled. He hit the post from a bad angle but recovered the rebound behind the net, waited patiently as the Jets played zone, and sweetly fed Matt Martin, who did well to one-time it into the empty net from the low circle.
* * *
So again, with the win the Isles are back in 11th and two points out of 10th for the first time in I-don't-wanna-look-it-up. Not quite an impressive win, but a win in which they took what they got in a tough place to play.
St. Louis will be even tougher. (Though this is till the NHL: The Blues lost in "lowly" Columbus 201 tonight.)