The New York Islanders rebounded from a chaotic and emotional loss Monday night at home to retain first place in the Metropolitan Division with a methodical 4-1 win over the division's last-place Carolina Hurricanes. A mix of new lines and pairings added some intrigue to compensate for a lack of drama.
No matter the competition, every NHL game's outcome is in doubt, but this one rarely felt that way. A sparse weather-diluted crowd -- with enough of an Isles contingent for some audible "Let's Go Islanders" chants -- and two teams at opposite ends of the standings fed an atmosphere of inevitability, even though the Isles were increasingly outshot after building their lead.
Anders Lee scored a rebound power play goal after nice give-and-go work from Frans Nielsen and John Tavares in the first, Brock Nelson broke his goal slump with a shot from the circle in the second, and Michael Grabner scored on a breakaway(!) in the third to create a comfortable, methodical feel for the visitors.
The most notable hiccup came after Isles-killer Jiri Tlusty got the Canes on the board and broke Chad Johnson's shutout bid 11:14 into the third period. The Hurricanes followed that with some good pressure, enough to awake Islanders fan demons. For a moment, the Canes thought they got another one to really turn the screws, but Nathan Gerbe knocked a shot down with a high stick that the refs immediately spotted, so it didn't matter if he then played it in with his shaft below the crossbar.
John Tavares iced the game with a "I'm John Tavares" empty net goal launched from just outside Johnson's crease with more than four minutes remaining.
With the Isles outshot 38-30 overall, this hockey game could have turned out differently. It just never felt like it would.
Johnson was steady, and did good work in stopping 37 shots for his win. Does it answer questions about the backup situation? No, but it boosts his save percentage up in the direction it's expected -- and likely -- to be when all is said and done. Returning to a NHL-style ".500" record (7-7) on a 38-19-1 doesn't hurt the confidence either.
Assorted Lineup Notes
- In past games when Casey Cizikas has been out, Ryan Strome centered the fourth line. Tonight it was the snake-bitten Nelson's turn for that role, and at the end of a nice shift by that line he ended up scoring his first goal since Jan. 4, 19 games ago.
- Activated off injured reserve earlier in the day, Grabner had a fantastic, energetic game. He constantly created headaches on the penalty kill -- the good kind, like headaches for the opposition -- and was a relentless forechecker. He was also rewarded with a breakaway goal that gave the Isles a 3-0 lead seven minutes into the third period, one of his four shots on goal.
- With Nelson on the fourth line, Grabner formed a scary combo with Frans NIelsen and Ryan Strome. Mikhail Grabovski had a rare (for his Isles tenure) night at center with Nikolay Kulemin and Cal Clutterbuck, where he won 7 of his 12 faceoffs (that's 58 percent, but also one loss from 50 percent for you math novices).
- On defense, more novel pairings: Brian Strait stayed with Travis Hamonic, while Hamonic's usual partner Calvin de Haan returned to the lineup paired with Thomas Hickey. The Nick Leddy - Johnny Boychuk pair remained.
- Hamonic took a shot off a finger on his right hand that sent him to the locker room midway through the third period. He was back under 10 minutes later and took a regular turn for three more shifts to the end of the game.
- After missing a sizable chunk of the Rangers game getting facial repairs and a full shield installed on his helmet, Leddy returned to minute-munching with Boychuk, each of them leading the team with over 21 minutes except for...
- ...Brian Strait everybody! He led the way with officially 22:42, boosted by 2:10 on the PK. Honestly, the ranting of fans about this is tiresome, but then so is the deployment itself. It doesn't really make sense in any modern hockey sense, and the Isles otherwise take a pretty advanced approach to the game.
The Isles fanbase had a visible presence, as they often do in Raleigh. The highlight had to be seeing the fisherman era blue jersey with the traditional crest behind the Isles bench, with a complementary white one behind the Canes bench.
Quote of the Night
I would wonder who the hell the Isles are showcasing Brian Strait for, but then I remembered they got 2nd & 3rd rounders for MacDonald so...— Dan Saraceni (@cultureoflosing) February 18, 2015
Can't blame a gal* for hoping.
*Dan, author of that tweet**, is not technically a gal. It's just an expression.
**Dan is also one of the brains behind this site, so it's totally biased*** for me to pick that as quote of the night. #fixisin
***Why are we even talking about this? Because it takes the mind off, or at least makes light of, the Strait Conspiracy.
Lots of season yet to play, but every inch counts...particularly with the Predators next on the schedule, Thursday
Nashville back at the Coliseum. The Predators are terrifying for several reasons, most of them rhyming with "Rekka Pinne."