In a game that began with the familiar ugliness that characterized much of their five-game regulation losing streak, the New York Islanders somehow righted themselves and pulled out two points on the final afternoon before their break, for their first victory and standings points of any kind in 2018.
With all the other storylines surrounding the Isles — injuries, a terrible regulation losing streak finally ended today, some guy’s pending free agency — it was rookie Sebastian Aho who had the most eventful afternoon and was charitably awarded the game’s first star.
(Jaroslav Halak, who faced an evening’s worth of shots in the first period alone, probably deserved that honor while facing 46 shots, and stopping all five shootout attempts.)
Aho was on the ice for three of the Devils’ first four goals against, but he was also a critical part of the Islanders erasing a 4-2 deficit in the third period, notching his first NHL goal and then assisting on the equalizer.
That set the stage for a 5-4 shootout win for the Islanders, remarkably bringing them back into a tie* (on points*) for fifth** place in the Metropolitan Division.
(**until the Penguins played and won later in the night. By the end of the day the Isles were tied on points for sixth, but dead last based on points per game)
First Period: Hockey is strange
In the opening minutes, the Islanders began right where they left off in Friday night’s 4-0 loss to the Penguins: hopeless.
The Devils buzzed their zone, kept the puck in for sustained periods easily, drew everyone out of position for heart-stopping wraparounds, and out-chanced the Isles easily.
The Isles caught a break when one of those wraparounds was ruled no goal by the officials due to “incidental contact” with Halak. It was indeed incidental contact that kept Halak from being able to quickly get back to the other side for the wraparound stuff, but it was the softest of calls. (My initial reaction was “terrible call,” but the review did confirm Kyle Palmieri contacted Halak in the crease, and certainly affected Halak’s ability to get back.)
The Devils challenged, but the refs reviewed and the overhead camera angle probably made them confident in upholding their call. If I were the Devils, I’d be ticked off not so much because the factual review here was wrong, but because we see worse contact ignored and we are helpless to divine what the standard is anymore.
At one point shots were 15-1 for the Devils, with the visitors also having a power play where the Isles could hardly get the puck out of the zone. That pressure continued after Anthony Beauvillier came out of the box, and the Isles were lucky to survive until a deflected shot finally went out of play.
Barzal Injury Scare
The Isles also had an absolute scare when Mathew Barzal’s knee bent the wrong way and he hobbled off the ice without putting any weight on it. Combined with other recent injuries — Josh Bailey and Andrew Ladd were the latest, missing this game — it felt like one more disastrous blow.
Anyway, Barzal returned a few shifts later, doing his usual sharp turns and reversals, so it looks like no structural damage and hopefully the upcoming break allows any lingering pain to recover.
Hockey being hockey, the Isles scored the first goal despite all that Devils domination. A second penalty kill was much better than the first, and followed some actual pushback from the Isles.
Some good pressure with a couple of shots by Ryan Pulock — the first painfully blocked by Brian Boyle — led to Anders Lee scoring from his office, backhanding a rebound that took a fortunate redirection off a defender’s skate.
First #Isles in-game lead since 9:43 of 1st period vs. BUF on 12/27.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) January 7, 2018
The Isles then survived to the end of the period with that 1-0 lead intact, despite being outshot overall 21-10.
Second Period: Different, yet somehow the same
It took less than five minutes into the second period — and four unanswered shots — for the Devils to tie it though. Palmieri was involved again, circling behind the net and setting up a point shot, where Travis Zajac won the battle with Sebastian Aho for the rebound and slapped it in past a prone Halak.
But the Isles were able to create some more chances themselves — more like the end of the second period than their miserable start — and they took the lead again at 10:44 on a finish by Beauvillier, who Doug Weight later said had his best game of the season. (The coach would say the same about Brock Nelson, too.)
The sophomore, back up from his first-ever AHL assignment thanks to an emergency recall, was well positioned after a great pass by Barzal following a victorious forecheck by Jordan Eberle to win the puck.
The Isles survived another hairy penalty kill, with Halak making a couple of big saves and the Devils hurting themselves by passing up additional good chances to shoot.
They then received a power play...and promptly gave up a shorthander. Barzal lost the puck on the left wing side, Leddy played the passer on a two-on-one, and Eberle was too slow to get back to provide any pressure on Zajac, who made an outstanding backhand deke to tie it 2-2.
The Isles never managed a shot on that power play on either side of Zajac’s goal, and only rarely had enough control to look like a shot might be forthcoming.
That set up what felt like the inevitable...except today for once there was a happy twist.
Third Period: Despair, then...resurrection?
The injury-forced and unfamiliar pairing of Nick Leddy and Aho was exposed a few times during the afternoon -- and to be fair, it wasn’t all on the rookie. One of them came early in the third period on a good Devils forecheck, compounded by Tanner Fritz standing in no man’s land to defend a point shot whose rebound Miles Wood was left all alone to convert for a 3-2 Devils lead.
The Devils’ go-ahead goal was just 2:41 into the period. About 40 seconds later, they added to the lead after Nick Leddy’s stick broke on a play at the Devils blueline. That fed a gang rush into the Isles zone, with Taylor Hall the open man. Hall took it to the net and tucked it in around Halak, drawing a stick-shattering assault from the Isles goalie on his innocent bystander post.
Aho would get some form of redemption, and partly due to Hall’s lack of discipline. Hall was knocked down from behind by Leddy in the Isles zone, and took out his frustration with a Grade 1 crosscheck to Brock Nelson’s back.
On the ensuing power play, after nearly conceding another shortie (Halak with the big save on a breakaway), the Islanders actually controlled and move the puck around quite well. Aho scored with his patented wrist shot — his first NHL goal — to bring the Isles back to within a goal, with more than half of the third left to play.
Offensive Competence Makes Shocking Return
The Islanders got the equalizer on what can only be described as insightful, patient and actually competent offensive work from a couple of players who have provided far too little of that this season, coordinated by a rookie who promises more of it in the future.
Nelson held the puck at the right point and made sure his lofted pass along the blueline made its way to Aho without being intercepted. Aho found Cal Clutterbuck breaking down the opposite circle and passed perfectly to him. Clutterbuck chipped his shot high to Cory Schneider’s glove side.
“Not quite in the toy department, but maybe one floor short,” said Butch Goring on MSG. (
Goring edit: Brendan Burke earlier called Barzal “The Creator,” which is lofty but not entirely inappropriate relative to the course of the Isles season. Fun night for the crew.)
As things wound down toward the end of regulation, the Islanders actually had a few more chances and good forechecking pressure. This version of the team has not been seen much over the past month and a half. It was refreshing — and yet somehow still maddening — to see it reappear now as they limp into the five-day rest break.
Overtime included the usual back-and-forth three-on-three fare. Tavares had some over-and-back moves. Barzal skated some circles. Hall had a shot from outside blocked out of play on a three-on-two rush. Barzal was caught by Hall at the end of a five-horse race toward the Devils net, leading to a crash into the cage and some repairs for the same net Halak assaulted earlier in the game.
Then, in a display of the highest incompetence of the afternoon, renowned official Dan O’Halloran called Tavares for a tripping penalty against Palmieri as they both clamped sticks hard in pursuit of a Tavares rebound. It was an awful, inexcusable call — and completely nonsensical in light of everything else they let happen on 50/50 plays during OT.
That gave the Devils a 4-on-3 power play with 2:30 left in the OT period, but the three-man unit of Casey Cizikas, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield were solid and positional in killing it off. The Devils helped by not moving the puck as quickly as they should. One late shot hit the crossbar.
In the shootout:
- Eberle hit the crossbar, then Halak made an oustanding glove save on Hall
- Tavares forced a mild glove save out of Schneider, Jesper Bratt never got a shot off on his move
- Barzal was stopped on a five-hole attempt after a slow approach, and Palmieri was stopped straight-up by Halak’s blocker
- Lee was stopped on a five-hole attempt, and Boyle lost a handle on the puck
- Nelson converted on their third-consecutive five-hole try, and Brian Gibbons — who was stopped by Halak on a chance to make it 5-3 earlier — hit the post to end the game and give the Isles a desperately needed win.
A break! Mercifully. A bunch of teams, including these two, now begin a five-day break, part of the NHL and NHLPA’s evolving attempt at a sort of bye week.
They come out of that break with six games in 10 days, starting Saturday afternoon at the Garden and finishing in Arizona before the NHL All-Star break.