John Tavares scored an overtime winner worthy of an NHL leading scorer as the New York Islanders overcame a third-period two-goal deficit to take both points in Toronto and ascend to first place in the Eastern Conference.
The victory over a struggling Maple Leafs team was more tortured than it should have been -- and cost them key defenseman Nick Leddy for a period if not more -- but the two points and regulation/OT win were essential for the Isles' Metropolitan Division dogfight, which hits a new level tomorrow night back home.
The Islanders could be accused -- but were probably not guilty -- of "looking past" this one with the idle and many-games-in-hand Rangers awaiting them back in New York. But they had the better of play overall; it just felt disjointed.
Despite a territorial advantage, the self-inflicted damage came more from taking too many early penalties and from failing to generate enough shots on their own power play opportunities. That cost them as the Leafs twice built two-goal leads, the second one coming with just 14 minutes of regulation left to go.
But the power play struck when it was needed most, the fourth line followed that up with a beauty to tie it, and Tavares -- dangerous but unlucky most of the night -- waltzed around, inside, and through four Leafs to slot home the winner with 21 seconds left, in his home town, in front of parents and "the other" John Tavares.
Not a bad show, all told.
How It All Went
After the game began with several minutes without a first whistle, the first period had an uneven feel and no goals until the 19th minute. It could've been worse though: The Isles killed off a one-minute five-on-three with both Ryan Strome and Cal Clutterbuck in the box.
David Booth finally opened scoring at 18:23 with a wonderful rush and evil backhand, snapping it top far corner on Michal Neuvirth after outrunning Ryan Strome's backcheck and slipping past Nick Leddy.
MIdway through the second, the Leafs doubled their lead when the puck popped loose for Peter Holland after Michal Neuvirth stopped Richard Panik's shot on the odd-man rush. The Isles whiffed on a couple of more power play opportunities before hitting the second intermission down 2-0.
To that point, though it was far from their best effort, the Isles could feel a little unlucky: John Tavares was robbed on the doorstep by Jonathan Bernier, Johnny Boychuk hit the crossbar, Nick Leddy was stopped all alone in front...these are just some of the golden chances that might've given
IslesTwitter a less desperate the game a different look.
Jack Capuano mixed lines up a bit for the third, reuniting the kid line and giving newcomer Tyler Kennedy a look on the top line. Whether circumstance or coincidence, that paid off immediately. Kennedy netted his first Isles goal just 1:32 in, benefiting from a great rush to the front and leave by that Tavares guy, who is good. (Kennedy, who rifled that goal home from a sharp angle, would later be robbed by Bernier for a potential regulation winner at the end of regulation.)
But as the Isles pushed for an equalizer, the Leafs struck on the counterattack. Travis Hamonic tried to drive a bouncing puck from the blueline toward goal but hit James van Riemsdyk's shin pads instead. The puck caromed perfectly for a JVR breakaway, and he laced it inside the far post past Neuvirth.
The two-goal lead was gone in 30 seconds.
First Frans Nielsen picked up a loose puck by way of Anders Lee to score on the power play, one created after Booth took an "accumulation of fouls" kind of yellow card, er penalty. First he took Thomas Hickey down in the corner, then was whistled for a much less convincing takedown of Strome.
Thirty seconds later, Hamonic timed his shot wide of goal until Casey Cizikas -- who seconds earlier was on his back with a Leaf in his face -- was free to redirect it beautifully for the equalizer.
After the Isles tied it, Neuvirth came up big stopping two fantastic Leafs chances as they made a push, one on Peter Holland and another on Morgan Rielly. The Isles then forced similar stops by Bernier from every imaginable direction.
The Islanders reach 43 wins, their most since 1983-84, the last time they made the Stanley Cup Finals. Alas, that was before there was such a thing as "shootouts" and "overtime points," so continue to build this and impress, pretty please.
No one needs a reminder, but: The final game of the Islanders-Rangers series is tomorrow night at Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders will bring a three-point lead in the standings. After the Isles' busy February, the Rangers have a busy March to make up most of their four games in hand.
There Was a Casualty
The comeback and Tavares stunner briefly obscured some bad news -- news that would've been the most important story of the night, win or lose: Nick Leddy left the game late in the second period and did not return. To these amateur eyes, it looked like he jammed or torqued a wrist while standing a Leaf up, but that's just what was available on reviewing replays.
There was no clear word on his injury after the game. Cross your fingers.
Casual Fist Bump of the Night
In which GM Garth Snow watches the Tavares heroics and says, essentially, "That's why we drafted that guy."
Glad they didn't lay an egg for the future top-line hopeful. If he's lucky, maybe one day he'll play with that Tavares guy.