The way the first three games of this four-game homestand went, you'd never imagine that a powerplay goal 6:05 into the game would be the only one that mattered.
But sure enough, Andrew MacDonald's shot from the point found it's way through for a 1-0 lead, and the rest of the game was a smart effort where the Islanders never found an insurance goal until the final minute, when the empty Panthers net afforded them not one, but two.
The 3-0 final puts some feel-good lipstick on a frustrating homestand, gives Evgeni Nabokov (26 saves) his third shutout of the season (55th on his career), and keeps the Islanders in that "are they or aren't they?" playoff bubble picture we know this lockout-shortened season seems destined to create.
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The first empty net goal came off the sticks of John Tavares -- after a smart defensive zone combo by Matt Moulson (who won the puck along the boards) and Brad Boyes (who took Moulson's feed and sent Tavares down the left wing). The second came down the same side off the stick of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin sending him racing for that one.
MacDonald's powerplay goal came after both units worked well, and Frans Nielsen found him as the Isles pulled the Panthers' PK east, west, and back east again. It could have easily not gone in though. We could easily still be cursing Jacob Markstrom right now.
Strong Start (again), Long Haul (again), Better Result (surprise!)
In every competition there are pushes and there are responses; part of the ebbs and flows we see and try to assess afterward are how the initial pushers deal with the opponent's response. This can be frustrating to watch as fans -- "Why can't they just keep this good play UP?!" -- but of course part of the challenge in sustaining for a "60-minute game" is that the opponent usually sees what's going on, and doubles their own resolve to change it.
So once again the Islanders opened with another strong first period -- outshooting Florida 13-4 -- and you knew the Panthers were more than likely to push back in the second. They did so, earning an early powerplay and logging the first seven shots of the period. The Islanders killed that, created some turnovers in the Panthers' zone, then an odd-man break. A chance for a "counteresponse" of sorts. But Mark Streit's pass to Marty Reasoner at the doorstep was probably a little too late, a little too cute, and Reasoner couldn't find a route to Matt Martin on the doorstep nor through Markstrom's pads.
Opportunity to respond missed. This one was going to be a long slog.
But an entertaining one at that. Considering it was a low-scoring game between two teams in the bottom third of the conference, there was lots of give-and-take and general chess. A relative scarcity of penalties and special teams fed that, so the game was on a knife edge throughout, always in danger of being altered by one mistake or one crazy bounce from the Coliseum boards or today's awful ice.
So as they outshot the Panthers 37-26, and 24-22 in the final two periods, the Islanders played what could fairly be called "the right way," from a steady flow of hits but not too many out of position, to a balanced diet of calm safety passes by their defensemen, and a healthy mix of two-men forechecks with the second man always ready to turn back quickly just in case.
Good effort, good result, off to the road they go.
- Seriously, the ice was so bad, the puck so bouncy, it's a wonder any goals and any clean passes were made at all today.
- The powerplay that provided the difference was impressive, but almost frustrating. The Islanders were able to pass the puck at will, almost to the point they passed up moments where you'd prefer they shoot.
- Several admirable shifts by all four lines throughout tonight, as they played assertively but smart while shepherding a 1-0 lead through most of the game. They didn't shy away from scoring chances, but they mostly made the right decisions on 50/50 plays.
- Thomas Hickey was back, with 24 shifts and just short of 20 minutes of ice time. Both with the puck and in his defensive reads and plays, he showed why he was probably the best waiver pickup of all during Garth Snow's post-lockout binge at the waiver buffet.
- The Islanders played this one well, really well, even if the final was again in doubt until the final 31 seconds. We won't pretend things have changed, and we won't pretend things couldn't have easily been different with a bad bounce here or a great individual play there. But considering they played well for long stretches of each of the three preceding games against much stronger opponents, it was good to see them play with discipline and determination, rather than the fragility you might have feared given the potential deflation had they lost this one too.
- And lest we fault them for not building a bigger margin, Jacob Markstrom had several things to say about it. Tonight he looked like the Panthers' goaltender of the future.
In a perfect example of why this bubble will last a while but may not change much: The win momentarily pulls the Isles to within a point of the ninth-place Rangers and eighth-place Hurricanes. It also pulls them two points ahead of the Capitals. But the Rangers and Capitals (momentarily two points behind) are playing tonight, and a three-point game is the worst-case scenario. UPDATE: Sure enough, three-point game. Capitals get the two, beating the Smurfs in the shootout.