There were chants of “Bar-ry Trotz,” “Leh-NER” and “We want playoffs!” as the New York Islanders clinched a playoff spot, doing so at Nassau Coliseum for the first time since 2002, in a comprehensive 5-1 destruction of the Buffalo Sabres.
The Isles came ready to play and make no doubt about how they’d like to clinch, starting the game with persistent pressure and zone time and never really letting up until the game was well out of hand in the final stretch of the third period.
The result keeps the Isles at pace with the Washington Capitals, though another victory for them tonight is putting the Metro Division title increasingly out of reach. More importantly, at least at this point, this clincher also puts the Isles four points (99) ahead of the Penguins (95) for home ice advantage, though the Isles’ likely first-round opponent has a game in hand.
First Period: Isles Mean Business
Barry Trotz has been reluctant to put Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle back together this season, almost fearing their explosive offense last year betrayed too many teamwide defensive lapses. It hasn’t helped that their frequent running mate, Anthony Beauvillier, has had a down year.
But Barzal and Eberle have been back together lately, working magic with Anders Lee and getting hot at just the right time. If they can be a major first-line threat heading into the playoffs, the Isles’ chances are strengthened.
So they opened scoring tonight, generating a series of chances before Barzal took a rebound, danced a defender to get a shot on, which Eberle deposited for his 18th goal of the season.
It was a thoroughly dominant period for the Isles, with all four lines coming out rolling and clearly looking determined to clinch on their own terms tonight.
Beauvillier looked to make it 2-0 with a breakaway, but he was hauled down by Brandon Montour and issued a penalty shot as compensation. He went in slow, shootout-style before trying to go five-hole, but Carter Hutton was having nothing of it.
So the Islanders reached the intermission with only a 1-0 lead to show for their dominance (shots: 16-8), and requiring a late-period penalty kill to assure even that.
Second Period: Getting Comfortable
But Beauvillier got on the board in the second after a magical series of moves by Devon Toews to keep the puck on side, gain the blueline, and shake the Sabres defense like Emmitt Smith working over the Bills. The Casey Cizikas line had exerted pressure long enough to get a line change and regroup to apply more, with Toews leading the way on re-entry.
The Pulock Cannon claimed another victim when the Isles’ #6 took a slapper that felled Marco Scandella. The Sabres defenseman left the ice and did not return.
Michael Dal Colle got a much needed third goal — for him this season and the Islanders in this game — by following through on a rebound in the final minute of the period. That had the home team and crowd feeling good entering the second intermission with 20 minutes left to punch a ticket to the postseason.
The shots-on-goal ledger was more even (12-12) in the middle period, but the underlying numbers...were not.
Third Period: Finish him
The fourth line, the Spiritual Leaders of the team, were having a good night already and got the party to a quick resumption on the opening shift of the third period. The forwards did all the distracting in front of the net, allowing Ryan Pulock to walk his way in for a point blank shot on Hutton, which he put through the five hole to make it 4-0.
Beauvillier took a hit from behind by Rasmus Dahlin, which drew a response but no matching penalty from Leo Komarov and gave everyone a chance to “enjoy” an Islanders power play.
I don’t really have to tell you how that one went.
But at even strength Beauvillier was rewarded for his troubles, notching his second goal of the night at the end of a pretty passing play from Komarov (yes, really) from behind the net to Josh Bailey, who one-touched to complete the triangle and give Beauvillier a fairly easy tap-in.
Poor Hutton. Poor Sabres fans.
Victor Olofsson broke Robin Lehner’s shutout bid and saved Buffalo from a completely futile night, with a power play goal with under seven minutes to go.
That made it 5-1, and the rest was just playing out the string. The only suspense was who would be named first star and get the on-ice interview in front of the raucous Coliseum crowd.
That nod went to Lehner and his 31 saves plus a big victory over his old team, and his comments did not disappoint: Praise for the team, the room, the building, and the fans — plus excitement for what’s to come in the postseason.
How Unexpected Was This?
Everyone, it seems, had the Islanders missing the playoffs. (Including me. I am relishing this turn of events.)
Brendan Burke helped remind us of how so many outlets saw it:
.@brendanmburke rolls off the predictions for each of the outlets that thought the @NYIslanders would miss the playoffs - by a lot #Isles— IslesBlog (@IslesBlog) March 31, 2019
(everyone except @BComptonNHL that is!) pic.twitter.com/0670MjP8zH
The Islanders welcome the Leafs back to the Coliseum Monday night. Heh.