Even when building the 3-0 leads they would go on to lose in their last two games, the Islanders didn't play as we have seen them this season. A little luck and power plays helped stake them to leads that only seemed stable.
Tonight's script against one of those blown leads - the St. Louis Blues now with Alexander Steen, Jay Bouwmeester and a shield-wearing David Backes - was different and much more encouraging. A disjointed first period gave way to a short appearance by the early season Islanders. The fast, in-your-face, puck-jumping ones that caught the league's attention.
Unfortunately, they wouldn't stay long enough to stop a two-game slide.
First Period: Steen Machine
The opening period was choppy for both teams and the shots ended 9-8 in favor of St. Louis. But the Blues pushed the Islanders around pretty handily en route to a 2-0 lead thanks in large part to Steen.
A Brian Strait interference penalty, in which he decided to hold up a Blues player rather than play the puck, led to a Steen power play goal on a slapper from the point.
Jaroslav Halak was good in tight for the period, but he took a David Backes shot from the circles in the noggin and needed a few minutes to recover. He was later beaten on another long shot, which Steen set up with some quality forechecking. Steen sent it out to Barrett Jackman who sent it in clean from the blue line between two bodies in front of Halak. It was Jackman's first goal since the end of the Spanish American War.
In the Dancing Bears portion of the period, Eric Boulton and Ryan Reaves squared off at center ice for their most-likely prearranged fight, but were broken up by the linesman before anything other than shade was thrown. Both received unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. While skating 4-on-4, Jori Lehtera took a tripping penalty but the Islanders could score on an extended 4-on-3.
Second Period: Welcome Back
For the first time in about five games, the Islanders - the ones who took the league by storm in October and November - were back. The second period was a 180 degree shift from the first, with passive play giving way to pushing play back into the Blues zone.
Shots were 14-8 in favor of the Islanders and for a while, it was a moral victory. But in the final five minutes, the Islanders tied the game and cashed in on their hard work. Off a Kyle Okposo face-off win, John Tavares strafed carefully across the crease, lost control of the puck but recovered to toss a wobbler through Jake Allen's five hole.
The Islanders would feel even better after Mikhail Grabovski flung the puck over Allen's shoulder with eight seconds to go in the period. With a face-off outside of the Blues zone (thanks to Grabovski being off-sides on the previous play), Frans Nielsen won the puck forward to Grabovski for his first goal since November 11th.
Third Period: Partly Sunny, but with a chance of Flurries
Something I noticed in last Saturday's game against the Blues was that they seemed to find another gear in the third period. I'm sure there's some science or system behind it, but to the eye test, they seem to have this relentless lockdown mode that kept the Islanders from even gaining control of the puck, let alone scoring.
Play was more wide open in the third, with chances traded in both directions. The Blues made good on an opportunity just past the midway point, with Steen swooping in uncovered and burying a rebound off a shot by T.J. Oshie to take the lead.
From that point, the Blues worked that lockdown mode to a tee, and trapped the Islanders in their own zone. Halak did what he could - stopping Oshie point blank after a horrendous giveaway by Lubomir Visnovsky and shutting down a pretty passing 3-on-2. But with that much pressure, it was only a matter of time.
Patrik Berglund had a step on Strait behind the net and fed Oshie in the slot to make it 4-2. At that point, the game seemed more or less sealed.
But the final few minutes saw a flurry of barely entertaining stat padding for both sides. A penalty to Cal Clutterbuck (who I thought played an energetic three periods), led to a Paul Stastny tap-in and a 5-3 Blues lead.
Perhaps jealous of Grabovski breaking his slump, Kyle Okposo scored his first goal in 16 games with a surprise wrister over Allen's shoulder, cutting the lead to two.
With Halak on the bench, the Blues iced the puck setting up the Islanders for a miracle. Instead, they got the sight of Tavares scoring an own goal (credited to Jaden Schwartz, who knocked it off Tavares' stick) and sliding head first into the net after weakly lunging after the sliding puck. Not the kind of lasting image anyone wanted to see.
- I thought Halak was okay, but long goals with little traffic are always dubious. In the third, with the Blues playing the role of the T-1000, he had little help around the net. It's tough to say a goalie is good when five goals get pumped past him, but I didn't think he was necessarily a problem.
- Brian Strait, on the other hand, is a problem and he's dutifully accepted the honorary position of "Defenseman Whose Every Miscue Is Huge and Ends up in the Net" from its previous owner, Andrew MacDonald.
- The Islanders lost their third in a row in regulation, but there were positives. The second period was a return to the up-tempo aggressive style that works so well for them and they did carry it over into the third. Tavares, Grabovski and Okposo all tallied. And a couple of huge face-off wins, which has been hurting the Islanders for a while, led directly to goals.
- But from Steen's second goal on, the Blues made it very difficult to move anywhere on the ice. With a lead, St. Louis is stone cold. It's pretty amazing.
- Post-game, Jack Capuano liked the way the Islanders battled back, complimented the Blues on their talent and structure and said his team needed to give more. In other words, see you all Saturday night.
- Come back, Johnny Boychuk.