Thomas Hickey scored the overtime winner just minutes after taking a skate to the chin, and Christopher Gibson notched a victory in his first NHL start just minutes after stopping an overtime breakaway, as the New York Islanders clinched a playoff spot with a third-period comeback win over the Washington Capitals in D.C.
The win gave the Islanders four points from a challenging back-to-back after last night's home win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It also denied Braden Holtby this attempt at tying the NHL record for most goalie wins in a season. How much it boosts a struggling and injury-laden team's psyche remains to be seen.
The Isles were fielding an injury-managed lineup, with morning recall Scott Mayfield and Brian Strait (who himself left the game hurt 15 minutes into the second period) in for Calvin de Haan and Marek Zidlicky, Eric Boulton in for Cal Clutterbuck, Steve Bernier in for Shane Prince, and Gibson starting after third-string Jean-Francois Berube was hurt earlier this week. Those are the recent injuries after Jaroslav Halak, Travis Hamonic and Mikhail Grabovski went down long term.
Basically, none of the underlying factors -- including the Isles struggles with the Caps dating back to last spring -- pointed toward a victory tonight. Yet the Isles truly played well, stuck with "our game" despite falling behind early, and even overcame a 3-1 deficit in the third period that could've been an easy excuse to call it a night.
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The Capitals tested Gibson early, and if he looked nervous in the early going he soon settled down. Alexander Ovechkin beat him from a low angle at 4:29, but it was still an Ovechkin-caliber shot. No shame in that on your first NHL start. He was square and steady through the rest of the period and didn't look at all out of place as he made 29 saves on the night.
It felt to these fatalist eyes that the Capitals spent far more time in the Isles zone, but the possession stats increasingly nudged the Islanders' way as the night went on. Of course, like so many meetings between these two over the last couple of seasons -- whether playing assertive or on their heels -- that was only good for the Isles to chip away for an equalizer for much of the game.
The Islanders had a split-personality power play in the second period that was one minute of pure frustration followed by a second minute of decent work and some good chances. Nothing resulted, but John Tavares' tied it a few minutes later on a rush off a setup from Thomas Hickey. It was a shot Holtby should have stopped with his glove, but Tavares isn't going to turn down a gift for his 31st of the season.
If there was a time in the second period when the game might've tilted in the Islanders' favor, it was a few minutes after Tavares' equalizer when Kyle Okposo had a golden one-time chance from the slot. But Holtby got down and across to make the pad save there and the teams reached the second intermission tied 1-1.
Once play resumed, it didn't take long for the Capitals to pull away. TJ Oshie golf-slapped a pass from low in the faceoff circle to Gibson's left to make it 2-1 just 1:15 into the final period.
Oshie featured again at 6:56 when he made a brilliant move on a three-on-one set up a no-doubt chance for Ovechkin's second goal of the game. That came on a counterattack after the Isles failed to get it in the Caps zone, and with recent coach call-outs Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson doing the Ovechkin Glide on their backcheck.
It Was Suddenly Over, Then It Suddenly Wasn't
This time, the Isles answered back, and quickly.
First Okposo pounced on a Barclays Center-style bounce off the end boards to slam the puck into a mostly open net at 8:40. Less than two minutes later, Anders Lee tied it from his office, deflecting a Nick Leddy volley through his legs and past Holtby to tie it 3-3 at 10:25.
Just as quickly as the game looked lost, they were square again with nine minutes left to go.
The teams played a lot of prevent the rest of the way.
Overtime began with a horrible backhand drop at the Caps blueline by John Tavares that led to an Evgeny Kuznetsov breakaway stopped by Gibson. On the play, Hickey took a scary skate to the chin and sped off the ice, but thankfully the damage looked minimal, at least by skate-to-the-face terms.
Hickey was soon back on the ice and after an Isles icing, he played the decoy on the Isles careful breakout. Ryan Strome sprinted at the defensive zone faceoff to win the puck despite the Caps winning the draw backward. Strome then held the puck behind the Isles net as Hickey circled for an outlet. Though Strome is faulted for deferring to Tavares too often, in this case it looked brilliant to wait until he could drop to Tavares in the Isles zone. Tavares gained the neutral zone, turned on the speed to gain the Isles zone, and then insightfully drop-passed his own rebound to Hickey in the low slot for the winner.
It was the kind of play a regular player "just gets to the net" -- where the agile Holtby was already positioned and ready, having recovered from the rebound. It was the kind of play a superstar makes and sometimes fumbles into a turnover. This time there was no doubt as Hickey pounced and sent his winner to the far upper corner where Holtby had no chance.
Thomas Hickey now with 13 career goals, 3 OT winners.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) April 6, 2016
Capuano didn't have an update on Strait. Said he's tired of talking about injuries.— Laura Albanese (@AlbaneseLaura) April 6, 2016
Mayfield, who saw action toward the end of last season's playoff series, renewed acquaintances with the Capitals quickly when he sent Mike Richards awkwardly into the boards with a simple forearm to the chest. Michael Latta took exception and they fought, with Latta's non-instigator roughing canceling out Mayfield's hey-that-was-mean interference penalty.
Not That Kind of Player Tom Wilson and Unapologetically That Player Eric Boulton took coincidental roughing penalties after Matt Niskanen crosschecked Bernier in front of the Caps net. That followed a Wilson cross-check on Hickey in the previous period.
The Hurricanes and Bruins also went to overtime, with the Bruins losing via shootout, but that game no longer matters after the Isles victory. The Isles should at worst get the first wild card position, where they would face the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers in the first round.
The two points brings the Isles to 97 on the season, briefly tied with the Rangers before the Smurfs won their home game against the Lightning to again pull two points ahead. The New York teams face each other at the Garden Thursday night, but the Rangers hold the standings tiebreaker.
Still three points ahead after the Isles win, the Penguins had pulled ahead of Ottawa in the third period at the time of this posting.