Let it never be said that Islanders fans don’t know how to send a warm welcome to someone important. In John Tavares’ first game back on Long Island as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, those in the building created a playoff atmosphere for the two teams to do battle, and it’s hard not to envision a rivalry budding here.
Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs were positively outclassed by the Islanders tonight, a cathartic ending to the last week or so of drama and media scrutiny over this game and the fans’ reactions. Praise be to Bossy.
Can You Hear Anything?
You know how, in Game 1 of a playoff series, both teams come out looking like they mainlined a bunch of speed right beforehand? That’s what the first period of this game appeared to be. Two teams that couldn’t wait to get the ball rolling. Or, rather, the puck gliding.
The MSG+ broadcast carried the tribute video during the first commercial break, which didn’t happen for a while because the refs didn’t blow the whistle for a full six minutes until the 10:00 mark. Originally, I was going to write something about how I was proud of the fans for not drowning out the audio through the tasteful thank you clip, but the broadcast crew must have amplified for the folks at home, because:
Did not hear a lick of audio from John Tavares tribute video over the booing.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) March 1, 2019
So I’m really proud of all you who were in attendance. And for his part, Tavares did the classy thing to skate out and raise his stick to the crowd in the face of all the boos and chants, including the lame and lazy “JT Sucks!,” the planned “We Don’t Need You!,” and the pleasantly improvised “You’re a Liar!”
The Leafs, with Tavares on the ice, briefly silenced the deafening crowd by jumping out to a 1-0 lead. Johnny Boychuk followed Tavares to the corner to give his old captain the first hard hit he’d take tonight, but in doing so, left the crease wide open and Toronto worked the puck around the key before the puck squirted out to Zach Hyman off the skate of Mitch Marner. Robin Lehner sprawled out to block it but he wasn’t in time.
The crowd was brought right back into it, though, thanks to Jake Muzzin’s unsuccessful pinch and collision with Mathew Barzal. The Islanders went the other way on a three-on-one with Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, and Adam Pelech. Beauvillier and Bailey played give-and-go before Beauvillier rifled it past Garret Sparks. The players went as wild as the crowd, and for old time’s sake, the play was completed by a lazy Tavares backcheck. The exhilarating first period ended tied at 1-1.
No Let Up
The crowd remained well invested in their task for the evening when the second period began and were only energized further when the Islanders took the lead for the first time and for good.
The Isles regained possession in their own zone, and the puck was touched by every Islander on the ice: Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, and Jordan Eberle worked it through the three zones, and Brock Nelson glanced over his shoulder as he picked up Eberle’s chip pass at the blue line. He saw Anders Lee in his peripherals during that peek, and as they skated in on a two-on-one, Nelson sent a backhand pass toward Lee that he made no mistake on. The go-ahead goal courtesy of this particular player initiated perhaps my favorite chant of the evening: “That’s Our Captain!”
It appeared the Maple Leafs had tied the game, Hyman again, after Leddy flubbed a pass or shot at the blue line that went right to Hyman or Mitch Marner. As the Leafs went the other way, Leddy and Boychuk miscommunicated about who had who and Leddy left Hyman wide open on the wing for a tap-in. But the video coaches noticed that Hyman was unable to keep his back skate on the ice as he crossed the blue line before Marner could get the puck in and Barry Trotz successfully had the goal wiped away, preserving a lead that would only grow from there.
The former Leaf Leo Komarov held up Auston Matthews as he glided toward the net and was sent to the box, and the first minute of the man advantage was dangerous. The Leafs’ first unit remained on the ice for a while, darting the puck around the ice nearly untouched. Matthews tried a similar play that drew a penalty, but Ryan Pulock played him perfectly, picking him off and chasing his own chip out of the zone to get it deep up the ice. The next set of killers didn’t allow the Leafs to set up anything else, and Cal Clutterbuck battled in the neutral zone until the puck got out ahead of Casey Cizikas and the Leafs pointmen. Cizikas floated in alone and deked Sparks out of his skates to beat him five-hole, giving him his 18th on the season and 6th shorthanded goal of the season.
The Islanders also gave themselves a little cushion by way of Valtteri Filppula with some help from Andrew Ladd and Toronto’s inability to gather themselves in the defensive zone. Komarov won an offensive zone face-off to the corner. Ladd picked it up and threw it toward the net, where Filppula picked it up. He attempted a shot that wouldn’t go, but picked it back up and he and Ladd played catch before Filppula snapped it past Sparks.
There was a scary moment toward the end of the period, wherein Boychuk turned Marner over on a hit. As Marner went downside up, his skate blade caught Boychuk in the chin/throat area, and he skated off on his own with a towel covering himself, though there didn’t appear to be any blood immediately. Thankfully, he returned to the bench for the third and the ice five minutes in.
Finishing the Job
The Islanders had to close out an incredible effort to this point to fulfill that 60-minute game they’ve lacked in the last couple weeks, and they wasted no time in recreating their own momentum. Less than a minute into the third, the Islanders set it up in the offensive zone, and Leddy’s point shot found its way to the back of the net, tipped on the way in. On first glance, it looked like it might have been Cizikas again, and he was credited with the goal, but the replay appeared to show the puck hitting the stick of Matthews. The goal might later be credited to Leddy, if that was the case.
That wasn’t enough for this team in this emotional game, though. There were plenty of Maple Leafs back to slide to him, yet no one moved toward Nelson as he cruised toward Sparks and snuck it past him. 6-1 Islanders, and that would be the final score in this game.
Thoughts and the Return of Feelings (!)
Hard to fathom a better possible outcome in this one. I am floored. What a game.
The fans did well not to let up as the game went on, and so did the Islanders. The Leafs are a team that can pop three goals in three minutes to tie the game, so I didn’t feel comfortable until they took a 5-1 lead. And they didn’t stop pushing even from there, nor after adding another one.
The Leafs were tired from playing and traveling last night, and were missing two regular defensemen in Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, so I can’t help but wonder if Trotz deftly drew them into the track meet style of game they normally play as to tire them out. By the end of it, Toronto looked absolutely lost.
Some other chants on the night were for Barry Trotz, Robin Lehner, Johnny Boychuk after he returned to the ice, and Casey Cizikas during his First Star of the Game on-ice interview with Shannon Hogan. Most of the chants tonight, though, were for the departed captain. Among those that appeared in the third: “Where’s Your Jammies?!,” Pedro Martinez’s famous “Who’s Your Daddy?!,” and “Barzy’s Better!”
Speaking of Barzal, he
didn’t find his way onto the scoresheet [ed. He got the second assist on Beauvillier’s goal] but he did play an excellent two-way game tonight, mostly matched against Tavares. There were also two sequences in which Barzal got some extra shots in on Johnny, reminding him how frustrated he is with his departure.
10-1 in the second half of back-to-backs.
And, Casey Cizikas is the hero we all deserve.
This was an emotionally draining evening for both fans and Islanders players, but they can’t let up yet. Tomorrow night, the Islanders host the Capitals, whom they now lead for first in the Metro by two points with a game in hand. 7:00 p.m. at the Coliseum.