The New York Islanders did not have anything close to the lineup they imagined when they marked their calendar for a Nov. 20 home opener of UBS Arena. But the lineup they did dress against the Calgary Flames — with four players making their debut, and several key regulars out — mounted a strong effort befitting the occasion.
The 5-2 loss, inflated by two late empty-net goals, takes some of the shine off but doesn’t dilute the significance of this long-awaited moment for the franchise.
On the ice, the Isles fell behind 2-0 thanks to a bad turnover — from a longtime Islander — and a power play goal, but they got one back before the end of the first and made a game of it throughout. A few young players and callups had impressive performances in a game littered with penalties. Ultimately special teams and a 34-save night from Jacob Markstrom kept them from coming back all the way.
The new guys called up from AHL Bridgeport were immediately noticeable and all over the place, mostly in a good way, with Robin Salo rushing the puck and Richard Panik endearing himself to fans with a crunching check on his first shift. Panik also had several good connections with multiple linemates. Thrown immediately into the fire for his NHL debut, Salo had a team-high 21:42 of ice time.
Andy Andreoff and Grant Hutton, making his NHL debut, were quieter but not completely out of place. Hutton was adjusting to new D partners but looked more comfortable when he relied on instinct.
Grant Hutton on his #Isles debut: "You feel for the guys who deserve to be out there, but I had a job to do."— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) November 21, 2021
They’ll all no doubt be needed again tomorrow night and the rest of this week, with Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Ross Johnston, Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech and Andy Greene all out in COVID protocol.
First Period: Penalties and 1st Goals
After long pre-game festivities emceed by the beloved Jiggs McDonald and including a deserving tribute to the late Charles Wang, the teams came out ready to play.
But just a few minutes in, Matt Martin committed a killer turnover in his own zone, leaving Brad Richardson with a golden look alone in the slot to beat Semyon Varlamov stick-side. The first goal in UBS Arena history came just 4:05 in, for the visitors.
Soon after, Johnny Gaudreau held on to Scott Mayfield’s stick for an absurd length of time, then apparently got called for a slash following the play. So early on, the futile Islanders power play made its first appearance.
Then it was the Flames’ turn on the power play, and theirs was much more dangerous, though the Isles PK did just enough to survive. It also created a nice opportunity, JG-Pageau finding Zach Parise on a shorthanded 2-on-1. But Parise couldn’t hang on to the pass amid some backside pressure, and the puck slipped to the corner without a shot.
After the Isles’ second power play, which was a little better, Mathew Barzal walked through the slot with some McDavid-lite moves on Nikita Zadorov, but his shot went wide as fans rose in anticipation of a highlight arena-breaking goal.
Not to be. And in keeping with the back-and-forth feel of the first period, the Isles were immediately called for their second penalty, too many men. Though Parise and Pageau again did good work on their part of the PK, the Flames got their second goal against the next unit, with a mid-slot deflection by Andrew Maniapane, his 13th goal of the season.
The Islanders earned a couple of more power plays over the rest of the first period, each looking a little bit better. Brock Nelson drew the first call, a soft but completely unnecessary holding by Richardson at the Flames blueline. Then Parise drew another as he drove the net.
This time, the Isles struck paydirt. Left alone in the low slot, Brock Nelson converted a Panik pass and entered the record books as the first Islanders to score at UBS Arena. But befitting the frustration of this month and the delayed gratification of finally getting to open the place, the ref muted the celebration by waving it off and directing play to continue. Brock’s face says everything:
With Nelson pointing at the goal, the goal light and the heavens, the Isles continued to work the puck for several seconds until the horn finally sounded to indicate that video reviewers (and everyone on this cursed earth but the ref) had seen that the puck went in.
With 23 seconds left in the first, the power play had finally converted, the Isles had their first goal, and the score was 2-1 heading to the second intermission.
Second Period: More Penalties, Fewer Goals
The second period was a solid period from both sides. When at 5-on-5, both teams played their game — an impressive feat for the Islanders’ part, given their emergency lineup against a Flames squad that appears very Trotz-like in its relentless work. The Isles were applying good pressure, but just couldn’t get the right final look or bounce, with Jacob Markstrom no small part of that.
But the penalty parade continued, with each team getting two more power plays, and the Flames the only one to convert. The Islanders got the first crack, on what arguably could’ve been a penalty shot when Sean Monohan hooked Oliver Wahlstrom as he broke in alone on Markstrom.
But the only second-period goal came from Mangiapane in the slot again, converting a nice deflection of a Noah Hanifan shot again.
Mangiapane’s goal to make it 3-1 came at 6:43, toward the end of a Zdeno Chara penalty. Just 24 seconds later, there is a strong argument that Blake Coleman should’ve received a major for his unrestrained check from behind on Oliver Wahlstrom, but he only got a minor for boarding.
And again, the Isles power play came up empty. Kyle Palmieri took an interference call a couple of minutes after Coleman got out of the box, but the Isles killed it.
After being on the receiving end of Coleman’s “minor” boarding, Wahlstrom appeared on the power play briefly before heading to the dressing room. He did return before the end of the period, but that’s something to watch with the Isles playing again Sunday night.
Frustratingly, the Isles were alive and motoring but not getting the payoff.
isles are at 52% expected goals thru 2 here, which is - no sarcasm - an incredibly admirable effort against a team like calgary. just more of the same... can't score (0-1 at evens), down at special teams.— Carey (@habermetrics) November 21, 2021
they're trying so hard. so frustrating.
Third Period: Push, push, push, but short
The Isles came out for the third with more good pressure. Nelson was set up for an early partial breakaway, but could only get a backhand off. But the Isles continued to reload, and on Nelson’s next shift he notched his second goal at 1:49.
It was good diversionary work from Kieffer Bellows, who drew traffic as he crossed the slot. Wahlstrom, who had the puck in the corner drove to the net and the Isles finally got a good break: A stick-check on Wahlstrom sent the puck right where he wanted it to go anyway: Nelson, alone at the top of the crease again, to put it past Markstrom and make it 3-2.
A shift with Barzal, Panik and Parise included three more prime one-time chances for Parise, but each one was either turned away or hit the side of the net. The man cannot buy a break.
They were among several Isladnders who pushed and pushed. Nelson was double-shifted quite a bit. Noah Dobson had perhaps his best game of the season, in an elevated role with three regulars out. Palmieri was all over the place — and he should’ve drawn an interference call, similar to the one he was penalized for, but the refs put the whistles away in the third after an over-active first 40 minutes.
With two minutes left, the Isles pulled Varlamov, then called timeout after a Flames icing with 1:50 left. The Isles set up Wahlstrom for a couple of shots from distance, but nothing more before Trevor Lewis sent a long-distance empty netter home with 1:15 to play. The Isles pulled Varlamov again and created one more round of pressure before Johnny Gaudreau deposited another with 38 seconds to go.
Kyle Palmieri: "Having grown up in this area, playing in this division for the last six or seven years, it's a home these fans deserve. It's an incredible building, the atmosphere was electric. Not the results we were looking for, but the fans showed up, they were excited."— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) November 21, 2021
With Ryan Pulock out long-term and so many COVID absences, it’s looking tough for the Isles at a time where they’re already in a hole after the 13-game road saga. And more positive tests could come, too. But if all of these replacement parts plus key regulars like Barzal and Nelson play like they did tonight, they may be able to get through this coming week.
That starts Sunday night, same place, vs. the Maple Leafs, before the Rangers visit on Wednesday.
Sights & Sounds
Butch Goring — who was part of the pre-game ceremony — working his phone on a busy night:
The doors are open at the UBS, it is very emotional and loud. The fans are ready pic.twitter.com/H6y711jDoM— Butch Goring (@91Butch) November 20, 2021
Co-owner Jon Ledecky, Man Of The People:
And his niece, Katie Ledecky, fastest aquatic woman in the world, was also in the house and got a shout and applause on the scoreboard:
What an incredible night. It’s almost impossible for non-Islanders fans to understand what the opening of this arena means. It’s not just a new building. Congrats to everyone who brought this palace to life. #Isles fans you have the home you deserve. pic.twitter.com/lKYA3BS4mL— Brendan Burke (@brendanmburke) November 21, 2021