Turns out Eliot was wrong: December was the cruelest month.
For the fourth time in December 2014, the New York Islanders held a 3-0 lead in a game and couldn't hold it. But...progress? This time it ended basically alright.
Whereas in Minnesota and St. Louis they coughed up all the points, and where as Saturday in Buffalo they at least salvaged a regulation point from the blown 3-0 lead, tonight they escaped with two points and a final sounding of the Nassau Coliseum horn. Johnny Boychuk scored the winner on a 4-on-3 power play blast with 2:08 left in overtime.
Just like earlier in the season on Long Island, however, the Isles OT win came at the cost of ceding a regulation point to the Capitals, who fall back to six points behind the Isles in the chase for a home playoff seed.
Themes: ...but First Place!
In an unusual turn, the special teams were key: The Isles faced three of the game's first four penalties, a scenario that could have made the game very different. Instead, they killed all of those -- Alex Ovechkin ruined one early by holding Casey Cizikas' stick as he skated away -- and even converted on their first full power play, thanks to Lubomir Visnovsky's shot and Brooks Orpik's shoulder.
Starter Jaroslav Halak was a welcome sight back in the crease and was his typical calm-if-not-spectacular self in stopping 23 shots. He didn't stand on his head but did not elicit panic either. One of his glove saves might have preserved the regulation win except...well, more on that later.
Overall, the Islanders again controlled most of play in building their goal-per-period 3-0 lead, with the kind of constant skating and quick passing that has characterized their best nights this season. And that stuff is, frankly, a joy to watch.
Add to it that, with the Penguins' loss to New Jersey, the Isles are back in a tie for first place, and this is a pretty good night. However, the dreaded 3-0 meltdown made its fourth appearance of the month, and that is what most will remember from this game as the Isles head out for a long and winding road into January.
The Isles Build that Cursed 3-0 Lead
I retain a fondness for Jack Hillen and am always happy to see him still in the NHL, but big Anders Lee vs. Hillen in front of the net is exactly the matchup you want, the kind of mismatch that Isles fans will remember which called into question how effective Hillen could ultimately be in this league. Hillen did his best within the rules to try to clear Lee away, but it just wasn't happening. Lee ended up free to make a brilliant deflection of Thomas Hickey's shot for the first goal.
The Islanders recently spoke of some of the tough luck their league-worst penalty kill had suffered; things like pucks bouncing up, over and in off defensemen's shoulders and such. Tonight the hockey gods paid them one back on the second goal when Lubomir Visnovsky's shot from the point caromed up and over the pile after deflecting off Brooks Orpik's shoulder. It had been decent puck movement from the second PP unit preceding that, so the hockey gods rewarded the right crew.
The Islanders narrowly missed scoring another power play goal soon after, with Nick Leddy set up for two consecutive prime scoring chances creeping in from the point. Between them, John Tavares hit the post on one of his impossibly low-angle highlight reel tries with Holtby scrambling after making the initial stretching save on Leddy.
(Not gonna lie though; part of me was concerned about the risk of extending the lead to 3-0.)
The Islanders pushed impressively throughout building their 2-0 lead, interrupted only by the occasional (and refreshingly successful) penalty kill. It was the PK that finally got them their third goal early in the third period. Good pressure by Nikolay Kulemin just before that penalty expired led to a turnover and a setup of Calvin de Haan in the high slot by John Tavares. de Haan blasted it high past Holtby for the all-important, and recently fatal, 3-0 lead.
The Isles Blow that Cursed 3-0 Lead
It didn't take long after the 3-0 lead, however, for this month's worst fears to return. Eric Fehr broke up the shutout with an upstairs backhand after Brooks Laich gave Halak the old butt to the face at the right edge of Halak's crease. It was a bit of a breakdown, but hey...that's why you build insurance goals right?
Not two minutes later came the second Caps goal -- the one that made everyone nervous -- was a failing by both members of the Isles pairing of Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic against the Capitals' most dangerous forward pairing.
A hesitant de Haan failed to cut the p\uck off before it reached Alex Ovechkin near the Caps blueline, allowing the creation of a two-on-one. Then Hamonic, perhaps assuming de Haan could get back in time, left Nicklas Backstrom in the middle of the ice to try to either pinch off Ovechkin or block his pass. Hamonic accomplished neither, and the resulting pass left Backstrom free to pick his corner as he skated in alone to beat Halak high glove side.
The journey to the goal that tied it -- and unleashed a thousand call-in-radio-level fan comments unto the Internet -- included two unsuccessful Islanders power plays, a two-on-one where Brock Nelson couldn't get a shot off, and one fantastic Halak glove save on Alex Ovechkin that briefly preserved the lead.
However, moments later, with 2:51 left on the clock, the Caps won a faceoff and Ovechkin made no mistake. His shot went over the leg of a blocking-position Hamonic and low past Halak's glove. That was a bit of irony, as one noteworthy factoid form the night was the Isles' success on previous key faceoffs, including several on special teams.
Alas, unbelievably -- yet so, so believably -- it was 3-3 once again.
Johnny Rocket Will Save Us All
Toward the end of regulation, the Islanders received a fortunate break in a game where they'd previously had to work for every gain: Evgeny Kuznetsov was called for a double-minor high-sticking as he lifted his stick trying to get around Ryan Strome. It drew blood, and gave the Isles a reprieve.
Befitting the near-disaster of the night, the Isles used 3:57 of that four-minute power play before they finally cashed in. Way too much passing around the perimeter, way too much passing up of one-timer opportunities, and way too much allowing the Capitals' simple triangle to dictate how they set up.
Thankfully, Boychuk finally said enough of all that.
Brooks Orpik evidently hurt his knee while checking Cal Clutterbuck kind of from behind (Clutterbuck turned, Orpik probably even let up relative to the Standard Orpik), drawing a trip limping to the locker room and a two-minute penalty for his opportunism.
This is the part of the recap where I'm legally obligated to say "You never want to see a guy get injured," even though I've seen Orpik make a habit of endangering his fellow NHLPA "union brothers" careers throughout his gritty, #veteranleader career.
Stan Fischler's New Year's Resolutions
A first intermission "treat" of sorts...
- "I'm not going to rip the referees...unless they deserve it."
- "I'm going to be objective about the Islanders...occasionally."
- "I want to see the Islanders go far in the playoffs -- not just the first round."
The third one isn't exactly a resolution -- unless the Maven has Frans-like powers -- but we'll take it.
Taunt Your Misbehaving Children
Well, see the brave among you on New Year's Eve in Winnipeg. (Virtually speaking, of course. Frans help you if your have Winnipeg on your New Year's plans.)