The New York Islanders live and die by their top line and powerplay centered by John Tavares, and they managed to do both on Sunday night. That line gave them a 2-0 lead but couldn't capitalize on the powerplay, and then, once the lead was lost, had a hand in allowing the Carolina Hurricanes to pull away in deflating 4-2 Isles loss at Nassau Coliseum.
It's not that the Isles' top line coughed the game up; rather, once the lead was lost, the Isles turned to the Tavares line again and again, to the point of evident near-exhaustion. Some nights that will work. Other nights they need help from some supplementary scoring.
On this night that secondary scoring never arrived. In fact, in a cruel twist, the Islanders' best period -- where all lines were generating pressure in the Hurricanes zone -- was also the period where they blew the lead thanks to a tough break on one goal and a series of mistakes on the next.
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It's the second time this week that the Islanders had a wounded opponent and a chance to grab much needed points, only to let it slip by and let a player tally his first NHL goal on the game winner. Bobby Sanguinetti was the lucky guy tonight; Andre Benoit was the winner of record in the loss to the Senators.
More importantly, tonight represents another failed attempt at extending a mini-win streak to three games and climbing up to the playoff bubble. This team has its weaknesses, and it has its needed lessons; tonight displayed an equal dose of both.
Despite not having a great first period, the Islanders hit the first intermission with a 2-0 lead thanks to goals by Matt Moulson and Tavares. In the second, they came out exactly as you would hope, pushing the Canes to the point where Carolina went nearly 15 minutes between shots on goal. They'd outshot them 14-2...
Then the tough break happened.
Matt Martin was called for an inexplicably interpreted offensive zone interference call (particularly cruel since he'd just been victimized himself at the other end of the rink). The faceoff went to the Islanders zone, where Frans Nielsen was kicked out of the dot. Michael Grabner lost the draw, the shot from the point deflected up in the air off Travis Hamonic, and Eric Staal was the only one to spot it, calmly waiting for it to descend to legal height before he batted it out of the air past Kevin Poulin.
That altered things with 90 seconds left. But 45 seconds later, the Isles allowed Jordan Staal to waltz up ice, with Michael Grabner and Marty Reasoner both committing inexcusable drive-by check attempts. That let the younger Staal cross the blueline with speed, use ample space provided by Hamonic and Lubomir Visnovsky, and fire a high glove-side shot that Kevin Poulin would surely like back.
From an impressive first two periods and pole position for a win, to a whole new game -- all in 45 seconds.
Unfortunately, the Isles did not regroup during the intermission -- or the Hurricanes, boosted by their late comeback, did. Play was too wide open to start, the Hurricanes pushing the Isles back on their heels and Cam Ward taking care of the rest. Sanguinetti's winner came on a 3-on-2 rush after the Tavares line lost it in the offensive zone.
With time winding down, the Canes called a timeout after an icing, which also gave the Isles a chance to rest the Tavares line and put it back out there. That turned into a fruitless and ultimately exhausting shift, however. It ended with Alexander Semin finishing an empty netter after a comical (but clearly fatigue-fueled) series of failed clears in the Isles zone.
- Marty Reasoner won 9 of his 13 draws, Casey Cizikas won 8 of his 10. They did their jobs. Tavares only won 7 of 23, including just 2 of 11 in the offensive zone. However, one of the draws Tavares won fed an excellent play by Brad Boyes to circle the net with the puck, getting the Canes defense to cross itself and leave Matt Moulson free to score the first goal.
- The other goal reflected a growing confidence in Tavares' game: Picking a spot to snipe on a 2-on-1. This time Moulson blocked a shot in the Isles zone and chipped it up the boards where Tavares, stickhandling smoothly, drew Ward off line enough to then score far high side.
- How was Radek Martinek? In his season debut -- wearing #4 now -- Martinek played strictly at even strength and logged the lowest ice time (14:51) among the six Islanders defensemen. With the game still tied he made a key mid-ice decision to take the body and short-circuit what could have otherwise been an odd-man rush for the Hurricanes. Little decisions like that could work well as a savvy veteran guy in a third-pair role. But we'll see how he holds up.
- How was Kevin Poulin? In his season debut, the young goaltender was just okay. He made some big saves in the first period to enable and then protect the Isles lead. He got drawn out too far a few times, but nothing too extraordinary. As mentioned, he didn't pick up J. Staal's long shot, and Sanguinettie beat him cleanly too on the winner.
- Announcing: For the superstitious, Butch and Howie skirted the "shutout" word by noting that Poulin had been "perfect" so far late in the second period. They were also debating the psychology of carrying a one-goal vs. two-goal vs. three-goal lead. All of this occurred as the Isles looked like they'd be carrying a 2-0 lead into the break. That changed in a hurry.
- Powerplays: The Isles didn't have a a lot -- just two opportunities plus an abridged one thanks to the back end of a 4-on-4. But late in the first period, leading 2-0, Jack Capuano called a timeout to rest the top PP unit and try to go for the jugular. That fell flat, and the Isles only managed one shot with the extra man.
- Good to see Frans Nielsen go a game without his stick breaking on the PK. So naturally the glass ate Casey Cizikas' stick (though not during a PK).
And there you have it. The Isles looked like they'd be taking advantage of a team missing an offensive star and three key defensemen, but that changed in a heartbeat and seemed to get them off their game. In ice time and in offensive zone starts, they're leaning heavily on the Tavares line -- which makes sense, as dangerous as that line is.
But the drawback, particularly on a back-to-back night like this, is the tank can run low and mistakes can mount. The powerplay came up empty and the whole team was unable to continue its strong play after the end-of-the-second misfortune. They fall to 2-7-0 at the Coliseum this season, with six more in a row to come.