They had Joshua Ho-Sang (in for an injured Cal Clutterbuck) and Scott Mayfield (in for an old Dennis Seidenberg) in the lineup to change things after the 5-0 loss in Columbus that pretended to start the season.
The night featured a rousing start, an insane second period where the teams exchanged pairs of shorthanded goals, and a conclusion that felt a lot tighter than it should have for a game where the Isles at one point had a 4-0 lead.
The night started with the usual home opener pomp and flash. The nice thing about being steamrolled in your season opener on the road is the home fans don’t care by the time the puck drops at home for the first time since April.
First Period: Hey, Eberle finds Tavares
It also helps to bring them to their feet early with a combo between the franchise star and the lone offseason addition, whose acquisition was made in part to make that franchise star feel like things are headed in the right direction.
After a fumbled Sabres pinch-in, you could hear the anticipation grow in the crowd when they realized it was Jordan Eberle rushing the puck out of the Islanders zone with John Tavares on the opposite wing on a developing two-on-one.
The play was obvious, which meant Eberle still had to make a very good, long pass to set up Tavares. The play was obvious, so Lehner was already pushing hard across ice the moment Eberle’s pass was released. The play was obvious, so Tavares waited out Lehner as he sprawled with a desperation glove lunge after over sliding past his angle.
And of course the goal was clearly a result of the elaborate chemistry Tavares and Eberle developed that one time eight years ago during that one shift where they scored a pivotal World Junior Championship goal despite not being on the same line for the whole tournament.
That put the Islanders up 1-0 just 1:50 into the game, and continued a festive Saturday’s good libations.
The Islanders had to kill two Sabres power plays in the last half of the period, handling the Sabres pressure decently and keeping shots to the perimeter despite the Barclays Center ice reaching up to take down John Tavares and then Casey Cizikas at the left point.
Second Period: Shortivus, the festival of shorthanded goals
Casey Cizikas drew a penalty by simply driving the net to give the Islanders an early second-period power play. Mathew Barzal showed his zone entry potential with some moves by the blueline, but then couldn’t finish or make the right decision to ensure possession was held. So the Isles didn’t mount anything on what was just their second power play of the season.
But a head-scratching penalty proved to be just what they needed to extend the lead.
Scott Mayfield received a “too much manstrength” minor after he drove the net for a rebound and overpowered Rasmus Ristolainen, who was driven into Robin Lehner (himself rarely an innocent party in altercations) and took exception by “roughing” Mayfield.
So with Mayfield off with the extra minor, the Islanders scored not once, but twice on the same penalty kill -- and then added another insult when Josh Ho-Sang came out of the penalty box to fetch a Jason Chimera clear and set up Josh Bailey to make it 4-0.
Tavares had scored on a partial shorthanded breakaway, backhand five hole on Lehner to make it 2-0 at 5:13. Casey Cizikas absolutely wired a shot from the left wing inside the far post to make it 3-0 at 6:03. Bailey’s goal came at the 7:00 mark, smartly catching Lehner by surprise with a low shot as Lehner worried about a possible pass for Chimera on the left side.
Bailey’s goal bumped Lehner from the game in favor of one-time temporary Islander Chad Johnson.
The Isles gave the Sabres daylight by conceding two shorties of their own over the next eight minutes.
The first came when Jaroslav Halak turned the puck over after he waited for a slow roller to enter the trapezoid behind his net. Mindful of avoiding a trapezoid penalty, he couldn’t get enough on his pass, which Jack Eichel stripped and sent to Evander Kane for an easy conversion.
The second came after a succession of errors in their own zone, a shot off the post to Halak’s right, a save by Halak after another turnover that caromed off the back glass and landed at the other post for Kane to tap in for a second shorthanded goal.
Third Period: This is fine, everything’s fine
But the Isles survived the rest of the second to enter the third period with a 4-2 lead. The chaotic second period created the vibe of “oh, it’s gonna be one of those crazy nights,” but thankfully the Islanders got the next goal when Anthony Beauvillier put home a rebound at 5:39 of the third.
That came after another good shift and forecheck from Ho-Sang to keep play alive.
And...they would need that one for continued comfort, as Eichel scored on a rebound of a Ristolainen point shot with just under four minutes left in regulation to make it 5-3. That was followed by a New NHL (TM) slashing penalty on Mathew Barzal to put the Islanders on the penalty kill with the third period’s only penalty to that point.
The Sabres came close, too. Halak made a save from in tight, the puck fluttered behind his pad, and he dropped his glove on it on the line before any HD camera in the building could prove otherwise.
Mathew Barzal lost a chance at his first NHL goal when Casey Cizikas force fed him a chance with Johnson pulled, only to have Kyle Okposo hustle to lay the axe handle down and prevent Barzal getting a shot off.
(Mind you, it was not a Patrik Stefan Moment. More of a “you just tried to force me to take a double-insurance empty netter as my first NHL goal?” moment.)
Cizikas and Tavares tried volleys toward the net while keeping the puck in the Sabres zone, but the final margin didn’t arrive until Cizikas — credited with a team-high five shots on goal as he enjoyed time with Ho-Sang and Beauvillier — sent a bouncing chip from his own zone to trickle into the empty net.
Despite his first-goal error, Halak was his trademark steady self most of the night with 26 saves. That, too, was needed after the goals started raining in on his tandem mate Thomas Greiss the night before.
Play(s) of the Game
Too many to pick just one. Eberle’s pass was great to Tavares, whose finish was refined. Ho-Sang’s work to chase down that puck and find Bailey (on an imperfect pass) was also fine, and Bailey’s calm and smart low shot to catch Lehner there doesn’t go in if Chimera isn’t hustling to create a second option.
Player of the Game
There’s only one John Tavares.
Monday is Columbus Day (don’t ask), which means lots of schools are off and the Islanders host an almost-annual matinee. The Blues visit for a 1 p.m. EDT start.