The Sabres came in still missing key regulars and after playing the night before. So given the Islanders’ dire record, this was kind of a “must win,” and it was important that they pull away once they had the Sabres down. The score was tied 1-1 still 26 minutes into the game, but the Islanders potted two goals in the second to take the lead and pulled away in the third.
The Isles enjoyed the return of a few of their recent COVID Protocolers, including Matt Barzal, Zach Parise, Matt Martin, Robin Salo and Cal Clutterbuck. They also welcomed Michael Dal Colle for his first NHL game of the season via the newly formed taxi squad.
Semyon Varlamov, who has struggled after a preseason injury delayed the start of his season, had a much-needed good night and 36 saves for his second victory of the season.
First Period: Barzal’s Back
The Islanders had the first opportunity when the Sabres took a too many men penalty just over a minute into the game. They didn’t do anything with that opportunity but they did strike first past the midway point of the first.
Barzal initiated the rush from his own zone, collecting a puck and feeding Noah Dobson to start the transition. Dobson rushed the puck, handed to Josh Bailey as he gained the blueline and then drove the net to create space behind him. Barzal filled that space as the trailer, accepted the feed from Bailey and had plenty of time to pick his spot on Malcolm Subban as he glided down the slot.
But the Isles couldn’t reach the intermission with the lead. Matt Martin was called for tripping former Knight Alex Tuch with just under two minutes left in the period, and the Sabres cashed in 50 seconds into the power play.
It was old friend Kyle Okposo who took advantage of a backdoor rebound after the Sabres had worked the puck around well. That made it 1-1 with a minute left, which is how it stood at the first intermission.
Shaking off holiday break/COVID pause rest, Varlamov looked good and stopped 13 of 14 shots in the first period.
Second Period: Pull away...
The Isles looked alive in the second period and it didn’t take them long to retake the lead. Kieffer Bellows, who continues to improve with assertive play, drove the slot and unleashed a nice, deceptive release as he moved across the slot to fool Malcolm Subban and make it 2-1.
Another look at Bellows' goal to give us the lead! pic.twitter.com/GGPuqc7bA8— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) December 31, 2021
That goal came at 6:45, and the Isles got more good looks a few minutes later after Anders Bjork took a goalie interference penalty. The Isles second power play opportunity was better than their first-period foray, as Dobson, Barzal and Bellows moved the puck crisply before Anders Lee cashed in with a third attempt. Lee was surrounded by all four Sabres penalty killers in the slot, but the puck bounced around and he was the lucky one to track it, ultimately chopping a bachkander up over Subban.
Another look at The Captain's goal! pic.twitter.com/YTm5C7GesC— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) December 31, 2021
Third Period: Seal the deal
With what has become an all-too-rare two-goal lead, the Islanders...looked like the Islanders of old? Consistent, disciplined play, opportunistic transitions to try to build the lead, and no big gaffes.
It was an opportunistic transition that gave them an insurance goal at 11:43 of the third, Barzal jumping on a turnover, gaining the zone, turning to find Bailey, who eventually fed Dobson at the point.
Lee was providing a distracting screen of Subban, so Dobson’s shot went undeflected — save for the blade of Subban’s stick — on its way in.
A bird's-eye view of Dobson's goal pic.twitter.com/H9y3sFDz9n— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) December 31, 2021
That goal made it 4-1 and pretty much removed any doubt. The fatigue the Sabres must be feeling started to show, and the Islanders, even with their COVID absences and injuries, have waited way too long to resume what they feel is a finally righting ship (points in eight of their last 10 games now) interrupted by the holiday break.
It’s just one game, but it will make them feel good, like they ended 2021 on a high note.
The Islanders host the Oilers — we think — for New Year’s Day on Saturday afternoon. What will the lineups be? Will the game actually happen? No telling this far in advance, not in 2021-22.