The New York Islanders enjoyed the tonic provided by the 30th-place Buffalo Sabres, steadily chipping away for a 3-0 win at home without any anxiety-inducing moments. Jaroslav Halak made 21 saves for his sixth shutout of the season.
It was a much-needed win for the slumping Isles, who came into the game 2-6-2 in their last 10, and with home ice in the playoffs in doubt for the first time in several months. The victory pulled the Isles back into second place (and a home-ice position) in the Metropolitan Division. Conditions in Saturday's other games generally favored the Isles: The Penguins lost in regulation in Columbus to drop three points behind the Isles, while Washington lost in OT in Ottawa, depriving the Capitals of a second point and a ROW.
(On that last one: A Washington regulation win would've clinched playoffs for the Isles, but Ottawa's OT win let the Isles retake second place in the Metro with tonight's win.)
Though the Isles had just a 1-0 lead heading into the third period, they put the game away with two goals and by outshooting the Sabres 15-4 in the period.
Goals and Kills
Kyle Okposo got the only goal of the first 40-plus minutes on the power play. After he dusted off a pass from John Tavares in the high slot, he still had enough time to get a good release, and saw it deflect off Brian Gionta and bounce off the ice to beat Andrey Makarov, who was very good in his NHL debut.
The penalty kill looked good killing off six minutes of Sabres power play time in the second period, including a full four minutes on one of those "really this is a double-minor?" high-sticking calls on Brian Strait because there must've been some blood denoting "injury." Hockey is such a weird, bizarrely officiated game.
The Islanders kept good possession on their own power play -- benefiting from a very soft call when Tyson Strachan knocked Thomas Hickey down -- early in the third period, but they only got one shot through to Makarov.
They kept up pressure after that failed power play, however, and Brock Nelson doubled their lead with his 20th goal of the season, zipping a shot through Makarov's five hole after a defensive turnover by the Sabres.
But the Sabres soon went back on another power play, thanks to an interference call on Frans Nielsen that defied explanation.
Just after killing that one off, the Isles put the game away. A hot potato exchange between Lubomir Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic at the blueline led to Nikolay Kulemin deflecting Hamonic's point shot in to make it 3-0 with under seven minutes left. It's Kulemin's 14th of the season.
Notes & What-Not
- The game featured some different line looks, such as the long-fantasized John Tavares and Ryan Strome combo with bulldog Nikolay Kulemin on their left wing.
- That left the reunion of Frans Nielsen with Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, plus "Kid Line" remnants Anders Lee and Brock Nelson together. Can't say the combos were instant magic, but hey, the Isles' recent ice-cold shooting percentage improved!
- Frans Nielsen remains a nagging "maintenance" injury concern, and he missed a bit of time after struggling on the bench and going to the locker room briefly during the second period. He looked no worse for wear the rest of the game, however. Superpowers.
- Eric Boulton, on the fourth line in just his seventh game of the season, wounded fourth-line fixture Matt Martin with a shot in the slot. CONSPIRACY.
- Tavares might've gotten an extra goal on a breakaway late in the third. Makarov stopped him, but Tavares popped the puck loose...for a rebound he batted in after the officials had already whistled play dead. Goalscorers, they want their goals.
Up Next: Metro Melees
One more week to go in the regular season: Two days until the next one, Tuesday night in Philadelphia, then a back-to-back to finish the season against the Penguins and Blue Jackets. All loom large.