For one night at least, with nothing on the line, the Islanders performed like the team they thought they could be, a team that could compete with the division’s best when properly organized and poised.
There was no luck involved, no grab-a-lead-and-pray behavior either. Just a solidly played 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, and their first win at home in over a month.
It was still a high-event shooting gallery, mind you, but the Isles had the better of play for significant stretches in all three periods. They started out on the front foot rather than flat in all three periods. They held the lead in all three periods.
As usual, solid goaltending helps, and Christopher Gibson (36 saves) provided that for all but one hiccup or mistake in front of him. And Mathew Barzal was the same ol’ Barzal, drawing penalties and adding to his nightly point parade.
And thus we must ask, as one does during the lost days of a non-playoff season: Where has this team been all 2018?
The Islanders had Chris Wagner and Ross Johnston as wingers on the fourth line with Cal Clutterbuck a “banged up” scratch. Sebastian Aho was scratched to make way for Dennis Seidenberg in the twilight of his tenure, we unsafely assume.
The Isles opened a 2-0 lead in the first half of the first period, both goals coming off of good pressure and astute plays from the blueliners to keep the puck in. The first one came at 5:10 when Nick Leddy made a move to keep the puck in and get it over to Johnny Boychuk in one swoop. Boychuk did well to get a shot off while a bit handcuffed, and it deflected in off Mathew Barzal in front of the net.
That came after good forechecking pressure by the Barzal line to win possession back after a dump-in.
The second goal, at 10:33, also came from simple good forechecking pressure. This time Andrew Ladd followed up to win the puck off the boards and get it to Tanner Fritz, who made a heads-up drop to Adam Pelech as he entered the zone. There was no traffic in front and Matt Murray had an open lane to assess Pelech’s shot, but it was a bullet to the top corner over the glove.
Gibson bailed Barzal out after the Isles wunderkind blew a tire at center ice on the power play, coughing up the puck for a breakaway by Riley Sheahan that Gibson turned away.
Anders Lee and Kris Letang nearly came to blows after exchanging slashes and crosschecks in front of the net on an Islanders power play, but Letang kept his gloves on and both went off for the mutual embrace.
The Islanders had some great chances in the second period to build their lead, with lots of good power play work after the pressure from the first opportunity led to a second Pens penalty.
After Ryan Pulock was called for hooking to shorten that second power play, he had a partial breakaway coming out of the box. But Pulock was pulled down by Olli Maatta with the arm-in move that is supposed to be a holding penalty these days; no shot, and no penalty nor penalty shot was awarded.
So those missed opportunities hurt, because the Penguins finally got on the board, Sheary converting a cross-slot one-timer with under three minutes to go in the period.
Things stood at 2-1 Islanders at the second intermission, with the Isles outshooting Pittsburgh 30-27.
The Penguins had a chance to reclaim first place with this game, so it was almost shocking to see the Islanders come out for the third as the better team. They were pushing the pace, making smart and safe plays when required, and getting more chances than they could convert.
So Barzal drew yet another penalty — tripping on Evgeni Malkin — 4:28 into the period and the power play again looked good. Barzal retrieved a wide shot that Anders Lee just missed tapping in, circled and slipped the puck back to Lee in his office. Exhibiting some of the subtle skills he’s added over the last few years, Lee lifted a backhand in tight and upstairs past Murray for a 3-1 lead.
Barzal with the primary assist, No. 55 on the season. Most for a rookie since Nicklas Backstrom had 55 assists in 2007-08.— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) March 21, 2018
Taking advantage of a long Pens shift, Fritz, Brock Nelson and Ladd had a pretty breath-taking three-way combo opportunity to put the game away, but Murray robbed Ladd from the slot.
Fortunately, when the Penguins pulled Murray with three minutes left, the Isles eventually did put the game away. Seidenberg broke up one golden chance for the Penguins to get back to within one, and otherwise the Isles never let the visitors get set up with the sixth attacker.
A couple of chances later, a nice neutral zone interception by Ryan Pulock, a good catch of his lob by Tavares, and Jordan Eberle benefited with an empty netter to make it 4-1.
The death march continues Thursday, with another Eastern leader in town. The Lightning visit. Will this version of the Isles be here to greet them?
People are understandably quite invested in “the tank” and improving lottery odds for the Islanders’ and Flames’ first-round picks this summer, so there will be fuming at actually winning, but I’m not playing that game.
I’ll take a win that annoys the Penguins. Because it’s a lottery. No matter what the Isles do from here on out, they will finish in the “fat chance but you never know” lottery odds territory.