But Josh Bailey’s equalizer was made flesh by official video review as the clock counted down to 0:45, Jaroslav Halak kept the Isles from sabotaging themselves with a couple of more game savers, and Mathew Barzal scored on a half-rink sprint 1:08 into overtime to give the home team a 3-2 win.
Halak made 35 saves on the night and probably should’ve been the first star. But who would deny Barzal glory after his joyous rush put an exclamation point on the night, completing a conversion of zero points into two?
Lineup Maneuvers: Seidenberg for Pulock
Calvin de Haan is out long term, reducing the crowded Isles blueline to seven regulars — and perhaps as importantly, removing one of the defenseman whose spot in the lineup was written in ink. So tonight the Isles rotated veteran Dennis Seidenberg back in for Ryan Pulock, who has had a good run since before de Haan went down.
Here’s Doug Weight talking about that:
“I had a great talk with [Pulock]. We've got seven D, and I want Seids to play. It was a good talk with Pulie; he's going in the right direction. He's defending well. I'd like to see him be greedier, to shoot a little more.”
For his part, Seidenberg was active and throwing his weight around. For what it’s worth, he does seem more effective with a little rest and, perhaps, a chip on the shoulder from drawing the most frequent scratches.
First Period: No hangover
Both teams came out looking rather sharp, considering their three-day Christmas break. Better yet, they came out physical, with both sides delivering lots of solid, tactical hits rather than conceding easy escapes up the boards or out of the zone.
Still, the best hit of the period came when the goal post to the left of Halak blatantly jumped out to clothesline Thomas Hickey.
The Islanders had the first power play just five minutes into the game, and they threatened with three shots on goal as well as a few good looks. Overall they had the better of play in the first period, with Robin Lehner stopping 14 shots to keep them off the board.
But the Sabres received the next two calls — each of them soft, though possibly making up for worse infractions overlooked just before them. Halak was strong on both, and he looked poised and in control.
The Sabres received their second power play late in the period, but despite their maintaining solid zone time, two of the better chances were shorthanded looks from the Isles on either side of the intermission.
Second Period: More hits, now with goals
The second shorthanded chance came early in the middle period, when a tired Casey Cizikas got himself a clear breakaway but zipped his shot high as Jack Eichel pursued him from behind.
The end of the Sabres power play was followed by a dangerous shift from the Barzal line, including a two-on-one set up by Johnny Boychuk where Andrew Ladd just missed a doorstep pass from Jordan Eberle.
The grinders kept that pressure up and Jason Chimera notched his long-overdue second goal of the season, sweeping in a rebound of a Cal Clutterbuck shot. Uncredited but rather essential to the goal was Scott Mayfield’s rush to the net followed by an acrobatic — nay, Matrix-esque — avoidance of Robin Lehner to prevent any chance of goalie interference. The Sabres wisely didn’t even challenge:
After getting the game’s first goal the Islanders looked like they might build on the lead with continued pressure. But at the midway point the Sabres equalized on a goal against the run of play. A simple shot from the point hit the endboards and Jack Eichel gathered it quickly to feed Zemgus Girgensons around the other side of the net, before Halak could locate where Eichel went.
The Isles benefited from a pretty soft trip/slash 13 minutes into the period, but they could not convert. The top unit had the puck in the Sabres zone for most of the two minutes and threatened repeatedly, but every loose puck or juicy rebound skittered just out of reach, or stayed loose just long enough for Lehner to reset.
Tavares had the best ensuing chance for the Isles, basically willing himself into a point-blank look at Lehner, who stood strong and kept the rebound from harm’s way.
The Sabres received the final power play of the period — a legit call on Andrew Ladd — and required some good work from the Isles PK to bend but not break. That one took them to the second intermission, though just two seconds remained on the man advantage.
Third Period: Sabres push and push, Halak holds fort
The Isles PK was put to work again early in the third after Halak stopped Jordan Nolan on a clear breakaway but couldn’t locate the puck afterward in his feet. Seidenberg pulled down Johan Larsson while trying to prevent further damage and went to the box for tripping.
That Sabres power play featured some hairy moments, as well as another Tavares opportunity, this time with a shot that ripped off Lehner’s mask, popping the strap on top.
But the power play seemed to get the Sabres going, and they kept pressure up.
Overall Lehner continued to frustrate the Isles by using his size to challenge them and force hard shots right into the equipment. Halak never has size on his side but his calm positioning when he’s on form is its own frustration point for opponents. Basically, 50 minutes into this game and tied 1-1, both goalies could claim credit for making this a goaltender’s duel.
But the Sabres were starting to get the edge. The Isles were getting hemmed in their own zone more and more and it finally cost them.
The Cizikas line couldn’t quite get a full change as the Sabres put the puck back into the zone and Kyle Okposo scored the go-ahead goal when he beat out Ladd to locating a rebound to Halak’s right.
With 8:27 to go, the Sabres held a 2-1 lead on Okposo’s first against his former team.
And Evander Kane, who assisted on Okposo’s goal with the initial shot, nearly made it a two-goal lead when he raced down the left wing after a poorly weighted Josh Bailey pass in the offensive zone put Scott Mayfield in no-man’s land. But Halak stood strong on that one too, with Leddy racing back to at least cut down Kane’s options.
In fact, the only reason the Isles made it to the last two minutes with just a one-goal deficit to erase was thanks to Halak.
The Sabres continued to tilt play and demand big stops from Halak until the Islanders pulled him for a sixth attacker with just over a minute left. Tavares phone boothed his way through the low slot to find Josh Bailey waiting at the bottom of the right wing faceoff circle. Bailey ripped a one-timer but Lehner made a diving, shortstop-style glove save, eliciting audible jaw-dropping throughout the arena.
Except...nowadays we have pretty clear video review (although Lehner would call it A CONSPIRACY). The official reviewers actually stopped play with the arena horn about 20-plus seconds after the save, which they’d determined to not be a save at all but rather too little, too late. Time wound back on the clock, and the Isles had their equalizer.
Lehner: "Toronto already made up their mind it was a goal, that's how it works in this league, the Bills have that play last game, it's something against Buffalo, it's (BS)" #Sabres— Brian Koziol (@BrianWGR) December 28, 2017
Bailey: "I knew it had a chance. I wasn't quite sure; from my angle, I could see his glove snap back a little bit. Obviously, I would have rather seen it hit the mesh the first go-around. Your heart breaks pretty quick in those situations, but obviously it worked out." #Isles— Brian Compton (@BComptonNHL) December 28, 2017
The Isles’ casual play continued for the final 70 seconds however, including Bailey, Mayfield and Cizikas combining for lackadaisical crime behind the net with a couple of seconds left.
Halak saved the game with 1.7 seconds left, robbing Sam Reinhart point blank.
Overtime: Halak and Barzal
Then Halak saved it again -- or at least the chance at a second standings point — when he stopped Kane with a blocker at the back door in overtime.
Halak save on Kane before Barzal OT winner. pic.twitter.com/ADMSwgT2K2— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) December 28, 2017
The Islanders were able to go back the other way and maintain possession with Tavares and Bailey. Tavares needed a breather and went to the bench, Bailey wisely took it out of the zone to regroup and — the wisest move of all — handed the puck off to Barzal to do the rest.
Barzal rushed over the line and had Rasmus Ristolainen caught deer-in-headlights and flat-footed. On his cut to the high slot he let go of a shot that took a piece of Lehner as it went through the goalie’s body.
Weight: ‘For 40 minutes we played a pretty good game’
He also expressed concern about the team trying to dangle rather than clawing its way back.
Quote of the Night
“He’s heating up!”
>>Johnny Boychuk, who was mic’d up by MSG, reacting to Chimera’s 2nd goal of the season
The Islanders hit the road to ring in 2018, playing a rematch in Winnipeg on Friday before New Year’s Eve in Colorado.