At this point it's bigger news when the Islanders don't allow an early goal or don't get shutout, so tonight they managed the former and came five minutes short of pulling off the latter.
The Islanders were flopping all over the zone early, allowing Tyler Meyers to poke in the final rebound just 1:21 into the game. A few hours or 53 minutes of game time later, Frans Nielsen ripped a short-side slapshot past Ryan Miller to halve a 2-0 Sabres lead that was rarely contested through a very sleepy contest that finished 2-1.
The Sabres' insurance goal -- insurance they would ultimately need -- was quite the cluster. Matt Martin was down hurt in the Sabres zone and Brian Rolston was drifting behind the Buffalo net to retrieve a loose stick as the Sabres rushed up ice 5-on-3. Andrew MacDonald sprawled to cut one passing lane, Aaron Ness took the other side and Josh Bailey, without any help from his wingers, still drifted down too low without covering anyone. [Full overhead video here.]
The uncovered Thomas Vanek took a nice pass from Derek Roy behind the net and scored the goal that would prove to be the difference.
The Islanders had a few choice opportunities to pull back within one goal much earlier, but Brian Rolston was stopped on two breakaways -- sprung on a nice stretch pass by Mark Streit on one of them -- Josh Bailey couldn't convert the rebound on one of them, and Michael Grabner settled a puck at point blank range only to go all Kyle Okposo and ring the post.
Miller did a nice job stopping Matt Moulson on the doorstep as time wound down.
* Josh Bailey left the game with back spasms midway through the second period, leading to a frequent mix of odd line combinations and some poor changes the rest of the way. Don't know if that fell on Doug Weight in his game filling in for flu-ridden Jack Capuano, but it must've made his head coaching debut more interesting than he'd have liked.
To be clear, the Sabres' second goal came on a bad change, but it wasn't anything resulting from Bailey's injury. Bailey was in fact the lone forward back in the zone on that play and he didn't handle the result that well. Rather, Martin drifted off -- we'll give him the benefit of the doubt after being prone and momentarily hurt -- leaving the Isles no chance to have another forward get back to work against the rush. The stat sheet gives Martin's sub Nino Niederreiter a minus on that play, but the hockey gods frown upon this injustice.
* Late in the second period, Mike Weber stepped up in the neutral zone to lay out Jay Pandolfo while Pandolfo received a suicide pass. Matt Martin stepped up from there to challenge Weber to an uneventful fight. No instigator called -- the NHL works in mysterious ways -- and fortunately Pandolfo would return to action.
* At the end of the first period, Patrick Kaleta and P.A. Parenteau unsurprisingly found each other and engaged in high gloves to face-turned-hug-turn-I-don't-like-you-someone-break-us-up. That caused the second period to start 4-on-4, which was at least a novelty in a sleepy game.
* As of now Poulin picked up the second assist (via Parenteau) on Nielsen's goal. Sort of doubt they saved the puck for him though.
* * *
The Isles mounted a few maybe-almost-not-really chances in the final five minutes and with the goalie pulled, but it was too little too late. The Islanders were outshot 37-31, trailed for 58:49 of the game, and looked a willing partner in a mutual display of defensive sloppiness between two flawed teams. With the win the Sabres leapfrogged the Isles for 11th in the East, dropping the Isles into a futile three-way tie for 12th at 58 points.
I don't know if the flu weakened more players than we know amid this back-to-back, or if the line imbalance after Bailey's injury -- Marty Reasoner got a few more minutes -- kept them out of sync, but it wasn't an impressive effort against a fellow weak Eastern team.
The Islanders host the Rangers Friday, a case where the two rivals are at almost completely opposite ends of the standings. Whatever will their lineup look like then? What, pray tell, will the performance look like?
Considering their two performances in the last 48 hours, maybe the reality of their fading playoff hopes is setting in. Certainly it should be.