The New York Islanders managed five out of six points on their three-game western road trip in the most surprising way: sandwiching an overtime loss to the league basement-dwelling Coyotes with a rare blowout of the Chicago Blackhawks and the first visitor regulation win in Vegas in two months.
They pulled off the latter with a 2-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in their first-ever visit to the expansion franchise’s thus far imposing home. The win shocked a team that was at the top of the NHL standings last weekend, ending the Knight’s 12-game point streak.
The Islanders and their mish-mash bottom six leaned hard on Jaroslav Halak for the victory and were outshot, per custom, 39-25, although that his 38 saves tell only part of the story.
The Knights outshot the Isles 17-5 in the final period as they shot from anywhere to try to chip away at a 2-0 deficit. But truly it was the first period (shots: 13-9 Vegas), particularly the second half of it, when the home team’s greatest threats came, with Halak making several big stops including a clearcut breakaway and a two-on-one.
Given those early chances and the high-flying of both squads, it was a shock to see these two teams emerge from the first period scoreless. The Isles finally broke the scoreless tie at the game’s midway point via Ross Johnson’s first NHL goal.
The rookie forward and recent callup, known more for his “physical presence” than his ways with the puck, notched the milestone in a fitting way: An attempt in tight to set up Cal Clutterbuck didn’t quite reach him at the top of the crease, instead caroming off Vegas defenseman Cody Eakin’s stick and into the goal.
That had the game entering the third period with zero penalties and the Isles holding a narrow 1-0 lead, frustrating the Vegas attack and slowing them in the neutral zone in what had settled back into an evenly played game.
The third was a prototypical “road period” to end trip: The Isles gave Marc-Andre Fleury little to do, but their best chance was a big one. The insurance goal came a little over eight minutes into the period through a more familiar source: The Mathew Barzal line.
Anthony Beauvillier pressured the Knights into a turnover with a fierce forecheck, winning the puck and dropping to Calder trophy favorite Barzal, who threaded a beauty of a pass through the high slot to Jordan Eberle, who scored with a sweet “bar down” shot.
That 2-0 score held until the Knights finally broke through on a Erik Haula power play goal with just over five minutes remaining.
Though Vegas managed 17 shots in the period, the Isles weren’t merely clinging on. Halak’s best work had come in the first, though he stood strong through one mad scramble around his net in the final minute. His reward came in the form of much-needed 2-0-1 road trip all backstopped by him.
So the Isles swept the Golden Knights season series with two regulation wins. They were well represented by traveling fans, providing some fodder for the team’s social media crew and franchise co-owner Jon Ledecky:
It was a much-needed happy ending to a tough January that has been almost as vicious as their dreadful December. The league now heads to the All-Star break with the Islanders one point out of the wild card spot with six Metropolitan Division clubs separated by two points.
None of the Islanders’ major issues have been fixed, though Halak’s performance has settled the goaltending situation, and Casey Cizikas and Johnny Boychuk sound close to coming back to provide some relief to their much-lamented injury situation.
We’ll see what they can muster at the other end of the break, as the Florida Panthers visit Brooklyn next Tuesday.