Tonight, on the surface, seemed like a match-up between two Eastern Conference cellar-dwelling teams in the New York Islanders and the Buffalo Sabres. Of course, it was much more than that: first and foremost, it was the first game for Kyle Okposo against his former team, the only one he had ever known before. Oh, and just to twist the knife a bit:
For the Sabres, Eichel is centering Moulson, Okposo— Mark Herrmann (@markpherrmann) December 16, 2016
It was also the first start this season for Jean-Francois Berube, the Islanders' 3rd goalie who has languished on the bench or in the press box for a season and a half, save for the few games he got in last year backing up Thomas Greiss while Jaroslav Halak was hurt. Halak, by the way, backed up Berube.
Casey Cizikas, who has taken a skate to some part of his body in two straight games, sat out tonight. Ryan Strome took his place on the fourth/third line, and Anthony Beauvillier returned to the lineup between Brock Nelson and Shane Prince.
First Period: I like the looks of this
A couple of good opportunities were had by the Isles in the first few minutes, one of which a 2-on-1 with John Tavares and Nick Leddy that was unfortunately a bit too pass-happy.
Andrew Ladd was also robbed down low by Robin Lehner after a beautiful pass across the crease from Alan Quine - second straight game in which these two connected for a scoring chance.
The current iteration of the first line, John Tavares between Anders Lee and Josh Bailey, played very well. Tavares won a faceoff and hit Leddy, who fired a point shot that bounced out to Bailey, with Lehner stoning them on both chances.
Berube wasn't terribly busy in the first ten minutes, but the Sabres' first line gave him quite the first test. Thomas Hickey tied up Okposo on what would've been a sure goal off a turnover, but then Berube had to make an incredibly acrobatic save on Matt Moulson off a rebound from a point shot.
Strome had success playing on the fourth line between Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck as a rookie, and he seemed to rekindle that a little bit this evening. He passed it in over the blue line to Nikolay Kulemin (in a near offsides play). Kulemin fed Clutterbuck, who dropped it for Strome, who ripped a wrister past Lehner.
The Isles would end the period up a goal, after outshooting the Sabres quite significantly: 16-7 (23-14 in the Corsis).
Second Period: Danger begins
Continuing a disturbing pattern, the Islanders came out strong in the first period, only to give up chances in the next period. Lee and the Sabres' Marc Foligno collided with Tavares in front of the net, taking him out of the play with what looked a left knee injury (he hobbled off to the dressing room while we cried) and in all the hubbub, the puck came out to Rasmus Ristolainen, who fired a shot from the blue line that was deflected by Johan Larsson past Berube. Tavares returned to the bench shortly after and tested out his leg, seeming to be okay without missing a shift. We breathe. The game, however, was tied.
The first penalty of the evening went to Sabres captain Brian Gionta, who I totally forgot still played in the NHL. He whacked the stick of Calvin de Haan out of his hands, giving the Islanders a power play opportunity. What looked like a horrendous power play for the first minute and a half turned into a power play goal, after Ladd and Quine gathered the puck down low and fed Johnny Boychuk. They all played catch until a shot was put on net, creating chaos by the net. Quine received a pass from Shane Prince (in a homecoming game full of family and friends, amazingly the first NHL game the Rochester native ever played in Buffalo) and sent it through some traffic into the back of the net.
Lee, Tavares, and Bailey continued their stellar play, connecting for a chance on a zone entry in transition that led to a Tavares shot and a scrum by the net where Tavares was dumped on his behind. He took a beating tonight, more so than usual.
If you heard the crowd cheering loudly for seemingly no reason during a stoppage in the middle of the period, here's why (never change, Buffalo):
Fan just climbed up on the glass on the end boards to get the puck that was trapped in the netting. Crowd roared for him.— Joe Yerdon (@JoeYerdon) December 17, 2016
Clutterbuck took a shift following a commercial break and he apparently had gone off to the locker room with an injury, but good news that he returned.
Hickey, playing the role of Lee (as proclaimed by Brendan Burke) deflected a point shot from Boychuk and nearly had a goal that was stopped by Lehner. Shortly thereafter, Bailey called for the puck and tapped his stick on the ice while Ristolainen looked to clear, and it actually tricked him, as he passed it directly to Bailey. He was unable to put it by Lehner, though.
The Sabres got an odd-man rush after Kulemin couldn't handle Clutterbuck's outlet pass in the neutral zone, forcing Clutterbuck to put the hook on Zemgus Girgensons going back the other way. The Sabres generated a few good chances on the power play, but the Isles were able to escape with the kill. The period would end 2-1, giving the Islanders the lead going into the third.
Third Period: Danger abounds
The Islanders started the period by being forced to kill off a Ladd tripping minor. They almost had it killed off when, in the dying seconds, other former Islander Matt Moulson, down low in his office, threw a puck across the crease that popped right off the skate of Hickey.
The Islanders seemed rattled in the beginning of the period, not registering a shot-on-goal until after the 13-minute mark. While hemmed in their own zone, Boychuk slammed Jack Eichel into the boards. He hit him in the numbers, but it appeared Eichel was turning at the last moment and was off-balance, putting him in a bit of a vulnerable position. Still not a good hit, and Boychuk knew it and immediately started tending to Eichel, who got up and seemed to be okay. He played a shift on the power play, but then rushed to the locker room, probably removed by concussion spotters. Quite frankly, I have no idea how he got up after that hit. It was the kind of frightening collision that could be so much worse - it almost looked like he could've hurt his neck. Boychuk received a two-minute minor. Eichel would return, presumably after clearing concussion protocol.
Berube didn't have a lot of work in the first period, but his job became increasingly more difficult as the evening wore on. Buffalo especially controlled play in the third, peppering the Isles goalie with shots.
With the game tied late, the refs seemed to put their whistles away, allowing both a hold/trip against Evander Kane and a slash against Clutterbuck to slide. In fact, the game was chippy throughout, but the number of penalties did not seem to match. Not that there was too much dirty play, but that we've seen games called much more closely.
Ryan O'Reilly found himself alone in the slot receiving a pass, but Tavares, who was down and sliding, swiped the puck away to save what probably would have been a goal because Islanders. Tavares is the anti-"because Islanders."
The Isles' first line generated yet another quality chance when Lee fed Leddy at the point, with Tavares tipping his shot. They weren't able to generate any more shots on the shift, but spent most of it in the Buffalo zone.
Overtime: That was quick
I swear, I cover so many games in which the Islanders go to overtime. Exciting stuff, and I am blessed. It started off with Eichel dancing around the Isles defense, but having to try to squeeze one short side by Berube, unsuccessfully.
Tavares and Bailey created a chance and got a shot on Lehner, with the rebound picked up by (of course) Kyle Okposo. He carried it up the ice, and fed Ristolainen zipping over the line, who ripped it past Berube glove-side.
Well, the Isles grabbed a point on a schedule loss while simultaneously creating some space for themselves in the cramped Eastern Conference basement. Still, they have struggled to give 60-minute efforts recently, starting out strong and falling flat by the end. Tonight is a night where that might make sense, having played and traveled last night, but it is nonetheless a common theme this season.
Final shots: 62-53 Buffalo (37-35 on goal). #isles get outshot 48-30 (30-19) in final two periods and OT. Rinse, wash, repeat.— Andy Graziano (@AndyGraz_SNY) December 17, 2016
Capuano blamed the loss, more or less, on the penalty kill, which isn't wrong. Shannon asked about Strome, and Cappy was pleased with him shooting the puck.
The Islanders go back to Brooklyn to host the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. It is Ugly T-shirt Night at the Barclays Center, with the first 10,000 fans (haha, 10,000 fans) receiving Isles-themed ugly Christmas sweater-style t-shirts - what a mouthful! It's also an NHL.tv Free Game of the Week, for anyone interested and not in the range of MSG+. Happy Friday, folks.