If their Friday night meeting with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks was a measuring stick for the New York Islanders, then the first period played out like last spring's first-round playoff test against the Pittsburgh Penguins: Overmatched and overwhelmed at first, followed by inspiring glimpses of the team's potential.
The Isles were outplayed badly for most of the first period -- a reminder of their Game 1 blowout loss to the Penguins six months ago -- but they settled down some and used their speed and tenacity to tie the game at 2-2 with two goals in the final minute of the first period.
But the Hawks got another goal to retake the lead early in the second period, then professionally sealed off the game like an annual Cup contender should. Chicago outshot the Isles 28-19, even sustaining a shot advantage while protecting the lead. The Isles could only watch and learn, hardly embarrassed but rarely looking like a threat to take the game back.
During the first-period comeback which made it interesting, the Isles top two lines caught the Blackhawks napping.
First Michael Grabner led a counterattack rush with speed up the right wing, then dropping a pass to Josh Bailey who quickly slotted a goal to the far post past Corey Crawford. We've seen that shot many times from Bailey, and the approach from the right wing is in this seldom-shooting winger's wheelhouse.
The first line followed that goal up with a god shift down low led by John Tavares' tenacious elusiveness along the boards, and he found Kyle Okposo through a crowd in front, where Okposo nicely took the puck from his skate to his blade and backhanded it in with under five seconds left on the clock.
But the story of the game was extended periods where the Islanders got hemmed in their own zone, the fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald the most frequent culprit, along with a dash of their substitutes and defensive partners.
Those instances resulted in the Hawks' first and third goals against the fourth and third lines, respectively. The pairing of Matt Donovan and Brian Strait were left to piece together defense on the first goal, a long Islanders shift that saw Niklas Hjalmarsson destabilize everything by rushing the puck behind the Isles net.
The game-winning goal of record by Michal Handzus also caught Donovan and Strait in a moment of miscommunication that left two Hawks bodies against one Isles defender in front of the net. Handzus easily slammed home a rebound that had come off Kevin Poulin's leg pad.
Donovan, it should be noted, was also on the ice for the two Islanders' goals in the final minute of the first period.
Things of Note, If One is in the Noting Mood
The New Guy: Cal Clutterbuck saw his NHL debut in Brock Nelson's place on the Peter Regin line with Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He was eased back in, with 8:35 of ice time -- none of it on special teams -- and wasn't very noticeable, along with the rest of his line. It's a line of odd parts, and I'm not sure they'll fit together, but the Isles understandably don't want to mess with the top two lines at present.
Regardless, this was Clutterbuck's first game action since a couple of periods in the Islanders' first preseason game, so there's far more data to observe before we know how he best fits. (For the record, he was credited with two hits, while Matt Martin was credited for five. For those keeping track of that likely race.)
The Returning Guy: Kevin Poulin was fine in net. The Isles conceded several golden scoring chances that Poulin denied. He was caught out a bit on Jonathan Toews' goal which made it 2-1, but the wide shot took a fortuitous bounce right to Toews' stick on the opposite side. Not an otherworldly performance, but not a scary one either.
The Second Line: Probably the Isles' best threat for most of the night came from Grabner, Bailey and Frans Nielsen. One other instance: Before the two Isles goals, Bailey intercepted a foolish Nikolai Khabibulin play, passed to the the right wing circle where Nielsen quickly crossed to Grabner at the doorstep. Grabner's shot some how missed the open net, and Bailey's collection was blocked.
The League of Uncharacteristic Combatants: Last game it was the battle of the Danes, this game it was a kerfuffle between perennial Lady Byng candidate Matt Moulson and Handzus, who had tried to push Moulson into the open Hawks gate when both were going off for a line change. Moulson shoved Handzus back, then John Tavares headlocked Handzus to keep Moulson from getting into a bigger altercation to celebrate his new baby.
The Sixth Attacker: Unlike so many times over the past two seasons, the Islanders looked more organized when they pulled Poulin for an extra attacker. They even had a couple of close chances that could have tied the game had fortune chose tonight to smile upon the Isles.
John Tavares, Tough Guy: Tavares took a puck to the mouth off a Thomas Hickey clear up the boards. Chicklets were lossed (GIF via CSNChicago):
The Islanders now travel to Nashville, where they play the Predators Saturday night.