In their pivotal game on this pivotal night in Raleigh, the New York Islanders were constantly battling back from behind. That's a fitting way for this team to clinch it's first playoff birth in six years.
They didn't exactly back in -- not after the amazing (and still regulation loss-free) April run they've had -- but they did have to claw back three times tonight just to earn a regulation point and force the game to overtime. Overtime did not smile upon them, and their dependable shooters failed in the shootout, but that regulation point was enough to clinch a playoff birth with two games to spare, thanks to the Washington Capitals clinching their division with a regulation win over the Winnipeg Jets.
Holy cow, the Islanders are headed to the playoffs.
The first period was sloppy. As Brent Thompson described it: "too much watching." But the Islanders nearly got out of it unscathed, having equalized on a Brad Boyes skate redirect (Toronto 8-Ball says: Good goal) just two minutes after Alexander Semin opened scoring by completely wrong-footing Evgeni Nabokov 3:57 into the game.
A golden chance came when Keith Aucoin broke free but hammered his shot high off the metal.
Instead, the Islanders headed into the first intermission down by a goal, Jordan Staal deflecting an airborne Jay Harrison shot in the slot with 3:40 left. Travis Hamonic and Brian Strait looked to be on completely different pages as Staal hemmed them in after a dump-in that allowed partial line changes for both teams.
The second period was better, the Islanders outshooting Carolina 14-11 and generally outchancing them. Josh Bailey tied it at 7:34 after a fantastic individual drive through the slot by Kyle Okposo. But the Islanders still made too many mistakes of omission and forced Evgeni Nabokov to make a brilliant side-to-side save on a wide 2-on-1 to keep the score tied at 2-2.
Another broken play and side-to-side opportunity gave the Hurricanes the lead, however. Tuomo Ruutu stormed through Andrew MacDonald with the puck, and then the puck stuck to the boards when Keith Aucoin tried to retrieve it, enabling Ruutu to center. His pass went off Jordan Staal's skate and across the slot to Patrick Dwyer, who slammed it past Nabokov.
The Isles had the run of play, but a misplay again cost them, and again they would enter the intermission trailing by a goal.
In the third period, another miscue almost ended it: On what would have been a Hurricanes icing, Nabokov inexplicably played the puck behind the net -- canceling icing -- and then fumbled the exchange with a surprised Hamonic. The puck came right out to Ruutu, who had a golden opportunity to put an insurance goal in the empty net ... and instead Ruutu clanged it off the post.
If Ruutu finished that gimme, we're probably not celebrating tonight.
Nabokov redeemed himself with time winding down when he stick-checked Alexander Semin on a 2-on-1 (the odd-man rush resulting from the Isles pressuring to try to get the tying goal). With that huge save in the bank, the Islanders headed the other way for the rush that would tie the game: Kyle Okposo rushed down the right wing boards, Matt Moulson retrieved and wheeled to John Tavares breaking in on the left wing, where he sent it to the top of the crease to bank it in off
Okposo the defenseman* with 61 seconds left in regulation.
*The goal was originally credited to Okposo, but changed afterward.
Okposo's charge and Tavares' patience were reflective of a night where the Isles did well to generate chances, but were too sloppy and too mistake-prone to expect a smooth victory, if a victory at all
But with equalizer, the Islanders had their point. Thankfully, Washington would take care of the rest.
Scary Moment Averted
The refs blew play dead after Jeff Skinner took a blow to the face even though the Hurricanes had possession, and they did it with good reason: Mark Streit wiped out and his skate came up and hit Skinner in the face. Fortunately it was just Streit's boot that made contact and not the blade.
Kirk Muller (whose, ahem, judgment has not always been sound in his NHL life) was irate on the bench. They either expected a high-stick call, or expected the refs to know that Skinner had not been sliced and thus not stopped play, even though Skinner's reaction made many of us observers fearing a Zednik incident.
Regardless, that could have been really ugly. Thankfully it wasn't.
- It's not normal hockey, but it is entertaining. This overtime was no different, the teams exchanging odd-man rushes and stretches of keeping the puck in the other's zone, roller-hockey style.
- The Isles didn't deal with their odd-man rushes satisfactorily, though MIchael Grabner hit the post on one opportunity. They probably had the majority of threatening chances, yet in actual OT shots on goal Carolina led 5-3.
- John Tavares forced a good glove save by Dan Ellis on a one-on-one opportunity from the high slot.
- Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo also had a clever exchange from the left wing corner late in OT.
- A point was already guaranteed, but I think I aged another year just watching all those almost-chances.
Heavens, Frans Nielsen has failed us. He went for his five-hole surprise move, but Dan Ellis -- who played really well in this game -- closed enough with the blade of his stick. Brad Boyes also failed low with an open shot low on Ellis, allowing Jeff Skinner's conversion to seal the bonus point for Carolina after Riley Nash had also converted on his first-ever attempt.
But, you know, five minutes later that didn't matter. The Islanders are playoff-bound. The Rangers even lost in regulation. The Isles have two games left to try to improve or solidify their seeding. If things stay where they are now, the Isles would renew postseason acquaintances with the Capitals.
I like the sound of that.
The Capital Centre from that highlight is gone. But Nassau Coliseum will get at least one more kick at the can, and the NHL will get one more reminder of what will be lost with that flawed but electric building. Praise Bossy.