The New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs delivered the perfect late-season game that means very little to either side: They traded goals throughout, plus a few nice saves and a bit of bad blood, producing a game whose result was in doubt until the final seconds.
The Leafs got the win, 5-4, taking advantage of their only lead of the game to finish a season sweep and add standings points that don’t much matter with their playoff position already set.
Anthony Beauvillier continued an unlikely push toward 20 goals, John Tavares added his 34th, and Jordan Eberle added a couple of assists to his quietly outstanding season.
The Islanders played with seven defensemen and 11 forwards, with Josh Bailey an injury scratch, so they rotated forwards along with four chief pairs. The teams established an easy-to-follow pattern over the first two periods: Islanders score, Leafs tie it up. Repeat.
Anthony Beauvillier netted the first goal of the game on a nice feed from Jordan Eberle after some good rotation with Mathew Barzal.
Beauvillier did a really nice job eluding the defense in the slot and timing his arrival for the one-timer. However, Eberle’s previous contact with the goalie led to a lengthy deliberation and a coach’s challenge for goalie interference.
In the process, the league powers now located in Toronto determined there was no interference — perhaps influenced by Frederik Andersen just kind of sitting there after the contact while play continued on — and we learned, along with Mike Babcock, just a little bit more about what this evolving standard might or might not be.
Anders Lee went to the box and it took a matter of seconds for him to feel shame, as the Leafs immediately tied it up on a nice play from the ensuing faceoff:
But the Islanders took their one-goal lead back soon afterward with their own power play, this time Johnny Boychuk delivering a bomb from the point.
As the Islanders pressed on the final shift of the period, John Tavares drew a hooking call on Auston Matthews to give the Isles a fresh power play to start the second period. Nothing of note happening on that one, however.
Weird to hear the alternating "Go Leafs Go" and "Snow Must Go" chants tonight. Pretty sure those aren't the same fans saying both.— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) March 30, 2018
In the second period, Nikita Zaitsev tied it up as the Leafs kept returning to mid-slot redirections...although this one was redirected in by Barzal as he attempted to prevent the deed by a Leafs.
Three minutes later the Islanders retook the lead on a nice rush up the ice during a delayed penalty, with Christopher Gibson practically joining the rush as he sprinted to get to the bench. The extra attacker was never needed, however; Adam Pelech gained the blueline, spun and dropped a pass to Andrew Ladd, who found Brock Nelson open at the right-wing faceoff circle to give the Isles a 3-2 lead.
But with three minutes left in the period, Mitch Marner tied it at 3-3, again on a nifty slot redirection past Gibson.
Third Period: Flip the Script
James van Riemsdyk changed the pattern by giving the Leafs their first lead of the game, 4-3, just two minutes into the third period. The rebound of a blocked shot landed perfectly in stride for van Riemsdyk to rifle it from the high slot.
But John Tavares continued the inversion of that pattern by tying it on a power play, picking up the loose and bouncing puck down low at 6:28.
Later on a good sustained shift, Tavares had an entertaining run-in with Morgan Rielly, who’d battled with Anders Lee in front of the net just prior. Tavares was upset by a non-call when Marner got his stick up on Tavares’ glove to spin him at the blueline. The pending free-agent captain took it out with an explosive hit on Rielly, which caused Nazem Kadri to sniff around the scene, which led Lee to intervene in a mutual bear hug.
That led to 4-on-4 hockey, but the the Leafs were able to keep Barzal from frightening them too terribly much.
And then, after the 4-on-4 was over, Johnny Boychuk sent a routine backhand up the glass behind the Isles net...but not touching it. It cleared its way into the stands without touching anything, putting the Isles shorthanded for a delay of game penalty on Boychuk.
They killed that one off, and generated a good chance for Barzal right afterward, but that was stopped and then Matthews scored the winner with four minutes to go.
Once Gibson was pulled for a sixth attacker, there was actually some entertaining hockey — at both ends. The Leafs chased down pucks in the Isles end for a little while, forcing some shot blocks and a couple of wide volleys toward the empty net. Then the Isles set up in the Leafs zone and got a few chances from Barzal, Tavares and company. But that was it.
Gibson himself had his moments, stopping Patrick Marleau on a breakaway earlier in the game and making one big stop on an odd-man rush with the game still tied at 4-4. Not a glorious game against his old franchise, but most of the goals were deflections.
Thomas Greiss came off of IR to be backup in this game with Jaroslav Halak taking ill. So we’ll see who appears in the net on Saturday.
They play again tomorrow night in Newark. The Devils await. Unlike the Leafs, who’d already clinched before tonight, the Devils are chasing a playoff spot.
If you’re the lottery odds-obsessed tanking sort, this result keeps the Isles tied on points (74) with the Blackhawks and Flames, which means very minor movements of 1 to 2% in their draft lottery odds is still very possible!