In the first of three meetings this week between the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, AHL Goalie of the Month Anders Nilsson shut the door when needed and preserved a fragile 1-0 lead to earn his first NHL victory and shutout. He's the first goalie in Isles history to earn both in the same game.
The Islanders rode a puck possessing if not productive powerplay to outshoot the Devils 18-12 through two periods, after which "Thor" Nilsson was called on to make 12 third-period saves to protect a lead created by Kyle Okposo. (Casey Cizikas assisted for his third NHL point in six games.)
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Certainly a tight game in front of a sellout Coliseum crowd, but each team had breakdowns and glorious chances that were denied by a post or a pad or glove of Thor and Martin Brodeur. Okposo's goal, in fact, came under a minute and zero whistles after Patrik Elias hit the post at the other end: Instead of the Islanders playing two periods with the slim lead, it could have easily gone the other way. That's hockey.
Okposo with the Go-Ahead: Shocking but welcome to see Okposo outmuscle Anton Volchenkov in the slot to win the puck and shoot it low glove side past Martin Brodeur. Okposo began the play digging it loose from the corner. That kind of trajectory -- corner dig, puck to the front, win a shot -- is what fans want to see out of Okposo.
Pretty Powerplay, Unrewarded: The 0-for-5 looks bad on the stat sheet, but my did the Islanders display some fantastic work on the powerplay. In winning pucks and in keeping it moving with crisp, decisive passing despite bad ice, the Islanders were simply unlucky not to pot one or two. A couple of posts and a couple of scoring chances just missed kept things close but no cigar. Overall, they logged nine shots at 5-on-4 and three more at 5-on-3. None on a brief 4-on-3 in the third, however.
Top Line Getting Close-and-Late Minutes: In the final minutes, with the lead to be protected, Jack Capuano again gave the John Tavares - Matt Moulson - P.A. Parenteau some important shifts, in addition to the usual suspects. (Prior to that, Marty Reasoner relieved Frans Nielsen and won a key faceoff, but the Islanders were unable to clear it immediately.)
This New Line Mix Thing: Cizikas was not part of those late shifts (he didn't get out there again after 13:04 into the third) as the bench and the centers were shortened. But he again centered an interesting line between Okposo and Nino Niederreiter. Nino (10:43) did alright on that shift leading to the goal, but he'd subbed off for Jay Pandolfo by the time Okposo scored. When Michael Grabner is ready to return after the flu, they might have some fun internal competition again.
Nightly Adventures in NHL Officiating: The penalty load was lopsided and weighed in the Islanders' favor, yet there were still hilarious moments where the Islanders could have had even more powerplays: On a delayed call that would lead to an Islanders 5-on-3, Anton Volchenkov caught the puck in the Devils crease, closed his hand on it and carried it outside of the crease for the whistle. Later on that powerplay, Matt Moulson took a high stick from Bryce Salvador that drew blood streaming from his chin. I don't know if that was referee blindness, or some sort of situational adjustment to not punish the Devils further than the original 5-on-3 (the original 5-on-4 coming from a tough-luck puck-over-the-class call).
In the third period, P.A. Parenteau took a hard slash on the hand by Ilya Kovalchuk that sent him off the ice. None of those were called, but you had random cumulative holds called on both teams that make you wonder. The Islanders were not in any way hindered by the officiating -- if anything, the Devils would look at the penalty ledger and feel picked on -- it's just fun watching what gets called and what escapes notice, or at least action, in the eyes of Stephane Auger and Paul Devorski.
Speaking of officiating, we avoided a Steve Staios Trip of the Night, but it was suggested on Twitter that there was a good candidate for one.
And speaking of the defense, Staios is limited and we've talked this season about the things he cannot do, but today he definitely did everything he could to keep guys to the outside and use the body when appropriate.
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Overall, like most Islanders wins this season, it was a solid team-level commitment to defense. For this roster to squeeze out wins, they need that as well as the NHL Commandment of good goaltending, and Nilsson certainly provided that as he spelled Evgeni Nabokov.
Good to see a line beyond the top line contribute again. This new line mix will be fun to watch as the experiment continues. (Alas, Josh Bailey's run of games scoring the first goal ended at three.) It's still a low-scoring team, but finding out whether a different mix of forwards can provide some occasional offense as they did in the past two wins is essential.
Meanwhile, watching these two teams clash with their dangerous top stars will be entertaining, and we have two more chances to see it this week. Next one isn't until Thursday in their building.
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P.S. Ryan Strome had five goals and an assist today in a 13-5 rout of Erie, but I believe Erie's goalie left the game hurt, so temper your hyperventilation accordingly.