The New York Islanders survived the first game without their best defenseman Travis Hamonic, the mid-game loss of Dylan Reese, and the careful debut of rookie Aaron Ness to hang on for dear life through 65 minutes of scoreless hockey.
That endurance test passed, Evgeni Nabokov made two more stops in the shootout while Ilya Bryzgalov couldn't stop Frans Nielsen and John Tavares, resulting in the Isles' second consecutive win in Philadelphia and a well-earned shutout for Nabokov.
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The big news (leak) of the night, which the Islanders were planning to announce with appropriate fanfare tomorrow, is Frans Nielsen's four-year, $11 million contract extension. But despite Nielsen authoring his patented Backhand of Judgment move to get the shootout winner, this night was Nabby, Nabby, Nabby.
The first period, with the team at full strength (sans Hamonic, of course), wasn't bad in the aggregate, with the Islanders creating multiple odd-man rushes they failed to convert. But the Flyers started the second period off strong and once Reese went down and the Islanders leaned mostly on four defensemen, it was a lopsided, hold-on-tight affair: The Islanders were outshot 31-10 in the final two periods.
The Islanders lost Reese midway through the second period on what looked like a disturbingly awkward torque of his knee (
or possibly groin update: Staple reports a "pretty serious leg brace" on Reese afterward, so initial guess is probably right). Reese gamely carried on until he could change, but he didn't return to the ice. With Ness making his NHL debut, that meant a switch to playing mostly four defensemen, and the Isles continued careful man-to-man defense in their zone.
On that note, the John Tavares line played conservatively and saw few scoring opportunities. Chicken or egg there, but they didn't mount much against frequent match Matt Read, Maxime Talbot and Jakub Voracek -- though the pairing of Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen were the key to swinging that battle. Regardless, Tavares is suddenly scoreless in three games, though his shootout conversion provided breathing room tonight.
Meanwhile, the Nielsen line saw a lot of Claude Giroux and Giroux alone had chance after chance, including one while shorthanded.
Le Pant, Le Pant, Le Pant
With the Islanders holding on for dear life throughout the third -- and Evgeni Nabokov and his shot blockers patiently staying square and blocking the low stuff -- the Islanders broke out with Tavares leading the rush through center. A quick one-on-one move on Andrej Meszaros got him in the clear enough to force a hooking penalty out of Matt Carle (how not Meszaros exactly?) with 5:15 left.
That burned some much-needed time off the clock, but the Islanders still managed to give up scoring chances, almost as if they'd taken the PP as a chance to catch their breath but forgot their opponent was frustrated as hell. Mark Eaton and Steve Staios taking turns on that powerplay tells you what kind of manpower situation the Islanders were in. (Why you wouldn't use young Aaron Ness there, when stable puck movement on the PP should be his strength, I'm not sure. Could've been a rotation thing I missed, since I clearly missed some Ness shifts.)
It goes without saying there was no conversion on that powerplay, but it may yet have given the Isles the rest they needed. Overtime was a little more even, though there too they needed a timeout after an icing race that Tavares reasonably thought he'd won.
... Have to say it was a fine night for Josh Bailey's line with Matt Martin and Rhett Rakhshani. They matched up mostly with Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Danny Briere and it was a quiet night for that Flyers trio. Bailey himself almost single-handedly created an OT winner with time running out by a good forecheck and drive to the net around Matt Carle.
... Star of the night was Nabokov, who played smart and calmly hung in there all night as the team in front of him went into prevent-and-survive mode. He also made a fine skate save on a good Danny Briere move in the shootout, which coming directly after Nielsen's conversion -- well that just felt good to see in so many ways.
... Seriously, Nabokov was just steady and technical, moving side to side and anticipating the Flyers' desperate heaves and wraparounds all night as the Flyers continually controlled play but attacked the net like a team that feels snakebitten. It's a fun sight when a goalie is in a team's head and you can see that team's interior battle between "We'll get one, just keep doing this" and "You've got to be Averying kidding me with this guy."
... Tough to evaluate Ness in his debut with the juggling of the pairs, but I didn't notice any glaring rookie mistakes and he somehow logged 14:25 and 21 shifts -- including seven shifts in the third and two in OT. (I swear, he's so elusive I didn't even notice he had that much ice.) From what I saw, he played contained and fundamentally, a good approach for his debut.
... Which is funnier here: That the Islanders now have a "two game winning streak in Philadelphia," or that Bryzgalov also gets a shutout for his night of duty as the Maytag repairman? (To be fair, Bryzgalov was good when needed in the first period, when the Isles had several chances to score an actual goal.)
... But this is why the shootout feels so wrong to me. The Islanders got by under trying circumstances -- so great for them and certainly Nabokov deserves his shutout -- it's just crazy to watch that game and say the Isles deserve the extra point because their guys converted two extra time breakaways. Alas, that's the reality, and they've certainly been on the other end. So bravo.
* * *
It's been remarked at times that the Islanders haven't had a goalie steal a game yet this year. Well Nabokov stole one tonight, and it's the game that finally puts the Isles back to the NHL's quasi-.500 in their 52nd game of the season. Temporarily they also hop into 11th place in the East with Tampa Bay losing to the Kings.
So be it. Nabby's impressive 45-save-plus-shootout clean sheet deserves at least that.