Talk of a "trap" game quickly became unnecessary as the New York Islanders opened an early lead and cruised to a 5-2 victory of the Florida Panthers in the final regular season game at Nassau Coliseum in 2012-13.
Michael Grabner narrowly missed a hat trick, captain Mark Streit also had two points, and all told 11 Isles notched points including the 37-year-old Kazakh goalie.
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Things got crazy in a hurry, the Isles opening with multiple good shifts from the top three lines. If they could convert one of their many early chances, you had the feeling the Isles would quickly run away from the Panthers and make an easy game of it.
They did...sort of.
The Opening: Just what the doctor ordered
The first strike came after nice puck movement at the top of the zone, Thomas Hickey taking the puck on the left wing half boards and sending to the net, where Matt Martin ramped a deflection that deflected again off Matt Moulson's knee and into the goal. That was after Moulson was among several Islanders robbed early.
Things continued as the Isles drew stupid penalties by the Panthers. First Tyson Strachan (the physical D-man would feature later) needlessly crosschecked Colin McDonald after McDonald had already shot the puck away. Then on that penalty kill, Erik Gudbranson gave Moulson an intentional open-blade whack that ended up riding up to Moulson's face and drawing blood. Not just a foolish slash, but a costly one thanks to the NHL's blood-equals-double rule.
The Panthers dodged another possible penalty after they closed a hand on the puck on the ensuing 5-on-3, but the Isles retrieved, Frans Nielsen slipping it back up high to Kyle Okposo, who fed Mark Streit cross-ice for a one-timer goal.
Still on the powerplay, Michael Grabner finished off the 3-0 surge after a handoff from Evgeni Nabokov set up a nice stretch pass from Andrew MacDonald. Grabner's breakaway move was excellent, pulling backhand to forehand and lifting it enough to beat Jacob Markstrom.
The Panthers got one back though, after John Tavares (and then Casey Cizikas on coincidental roughing minors) ended up in the box on a trip. Dmitry Kulikov finished well with a high shot after Tomas Fleischmann found him with a pass from behind the net through MacDonald, whose stick had broken.
The Rest: Chasing Markstrom, sealing the win
The game achieved full laugher status (as well as "hope no one gets hurt" status) within the first four minutes of the second period, chasing Jacob Markstrom from the net. Jesse Joensuu made a nice pull-up move inside the Panthers zone to feed Radek Martinek for a nice one-timer in what could be his final regular season home game as an Islander.
Just 12 seconds later, Brian Campbell captured the state of the Panthers perfectly when he made a mind-boggling backhand feed to Grabner in the Florida slot. Grabner finished with a high backhand on Markstrom, who was rightfully angry and mercifully pulled.
Florida got one back four minutes later from Marcel Goc to conclude the night's scoring, finishing after Evgeni Nabokov went sprawling to try to stop Tomas Kopecky after an Isles turnover.
That was representative of a very sloppy second period by both sides -- enough to earn Doug Weight's "worst period in weeks" proclamation during the intermission. If the Panthers weren't so visibly depleted, and if the Isles were...well, hell if they were even the Islanders of the early part of this season, the game might have gotten much closer. Instead, things eventually settled down.
Unfortunately, that whole "hope no one gets injured" part did not hold out. Casey Cizikas left and did not return after taking a shot off what looked like his left arm. Things also were getting chippy -- Scott Upshall made little attempt to avoid skating toward Nabokov after the puck was covered, resulting in an elbow to Nabby's head in the ensuing battle for moot position.
And Colin McDonald did as he's been asked to do all season: Make a physical statement, this time knocking Strachan on his tush with a thundering hit inside the Panthers blueline. Strachan is generally a physical nuisance to play against, and with the game heading to a blowout he'd been pushing that line. McDonald's hit was the perfect response. Joensuu too made his physical presence felt on multiple skirmishes.
Aside from a few penalty kills, the third period was fairly uneventful. The Isles tightened up, dealt with the calls with professionalism, and finished things off for the home fans.
That's 49 points for the Isles. Other results: The Senators beat the Hurricanes to stay a point above the Isles in sixth place. The Flyers did us a favor by beating the Rangers in regulation. The Leafs were blown out by the Capitals, meaning the Isles are just four points behind them with five games each to play. (The Leafs hold the regulation+OT win tiebreaker by an insurmountable lead, however.)
On Fan Appreciation Night, Mark Streit thanked the fans and told them "We want playoffs too," while the auction winners got the jerseys off their backs.
With a little luck and some continued good play, in a couple of weeks those fans will be able to wear those jerseys to the first playoff games at the Coliseum since 2007.