Semyon Varlamov made 34 saves and J-G Pageau scores a late powerplay winner to give the Islanders a 3-2 victory and their third in three tries over the Buffalo Sabres.
The win bumped the Islanders up to a momentary tie for second-most points in the East Division, with 21 points in 18 games. (The Capitals have 21 in 17 games.)
It was far from pretty, and not anywhere near as assuring as the previous two wins over the Sabres. But the Islanders received timely contributions on specials teams, D and goaltending from throughout the lineup.
Austin Czarnik was in for his second game of the season, with Michael Dal Colle retroactively placed on IR. Arguably a slow start after a long time without game action, but Czarnik appeared to run his routes well and settle in next to Pageau and Oliver Wahlstrom.
First Period: Quiet start, late goal conceded
Not much to show from the first half of the first period beyond some early golden (and largely missed) opportunities at the doorstep for Anthony Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle. That was part of a theme as the Isles fired eight shots that missed the net during the period, and didn’t long one on goal in the final 15 minutes.
The first big test came after a Wahlstrom shot from distance — you guessed it — missed the net. Tobias Rieder rushed the other way and drew a penalty by splitting an unevenly staggered Scott Mayfield and Nick Leddy, with Mayfield getting the hooking minor.
Later in the period, Ryan Pulock would make sure that didn’t happen again, delivering a solid, heavy-truck check on Rieder in a very similar situation. It was clean and without a big run-up, but ended up far graver than imagined: Rieder ended up leaving the game.
But on the Mayfield penalty, the Islanders did well to clear rebounds against the Sabres’ dangerous power play; Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck gave themselves perhaps the best chance of the two minutes, a shorthanded opportunity that was broken up without a shot on goal.
That successful PK was followed up by a nice shift of sustained pressure by the top line, started by a smooth Mathew Barzal zone entry through four Sabres.
But the Sabres were the only ones to strike in the period, at 17:15. A simple volley from the point by Henri Jokiharju was viciously redirected by Curtis Lazar, impossible for Varlamov to react in time.
Second Period: Starting to come around
The second period did not begin on the right note. Barzal took an offensive zone penalty while pursuing Jack Eichel, inadvertently — but very blatantly — tripping the Sabres captain.
But the Isles PK helped mitigate Barzal’s mistake, and he came out of the box on fire. He led a rush with a dangerous shot, then chased to strip the puck back before the Sabres could escape the zone. His dump led to a sequence where Anders Lee was in alone in front, making a few nifty moves to beat Linus Ulmark and tie the game at 1-1.
The Isles followed that up by drawing their first power play of the game, but they couldn’t capitalize, and allowed some uncomfortable rushes the other way.
Varlamov made one of the more underrated saves of the game when he came out above his crease to waffle away a Kyle Okposo wrist shot against the grain.
#Isles with 5 SOG through 29:48 so far (19 attempts). Lee has 3 of them. Seems less than ideal— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) February 23, 2021
The Islanders weren’t getting many shots on target, but they continued to get pucks deep. One such sequence led to another golden chance for Beauvillier. But Ullmark robbed from the low slot after a feed from behind the net by Brock Nelson.
Soon after, Pageau had a chance all alone on Ullmark, made a great deke, but couldn’t quite finish the rolling puck.
Wahlstrom getting chances, which is good. May need to let go of the puck a bit more to get it back in better scoring spots. Can't usually grip it and rip it in the NHL.— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) February 23, 2021
The fourth line did not get a lot of reps in the middle period, but Matt Martin also had a nice chance when they came on late, a turnaround shot after a shot was blocked in the mid-slot, but Ullmark was there for that one too.
Third Period: Waiting to exhale
Martin may have been stopped there, but his line followed up with another nice shift early in the third, and this one paid off: After a Matt Greene shot was blocked in the slot, Matt Martin came over, scooped it up, and whipped a shot from far out through two Sabres and in for the go-ahead goal.
Alas, the lead did not last long. Just a minute later, Lee was called for interference, and the Sabres shooting gallery commenced. Sam Reinhart eventually finished by scooping a rebound on his blade in the air, jai alai style, and depositing it in the net to tie it at 2-2.
What a goal from Sam Reinhart pic.twitter.com/OCGmpmgBUe— SB Nation NHL (@SBNationNHL) February 23, 2021
With the scored tied and teams exchanging chances — among them, Varlamov stoned Casey Mittelstadt on a breakaway — Barzal drew a penalty rushing through the neutral zone. It was at the beginning of a shift with less than seven minutes left, o Barzal’s top unit had fresh legs and lots of time to get the go-ahead goal. Lee was creating space down low, practically begging for a feed. Barzal spotted Eberle for a tap-in opportunity but the puck bounced up just before getting there.
So the first PP unit came up empty, but the second unit continued their good work. With Noah Dobson piloting, they kept the pressure on. J-G Pageau ultimately swatted home the rebound of a Wahlstrom one-timer to give the Isles a 3-2 lead with 4:54 to go.
The Sabres nearly pulled Ullmark early, but he stayed in as Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas won possession and headed up ice. Nelson went for the combo instead of the shot and it almost connected, but ultimately no shot was registered.
That provided all of the Sabres’ top weapons time to really threaten and run the Isles ragged for a long shift, until a clearance and a timeout with 26 seconds left.
But as he did all night, Varlamov shut the door.
Oliver Keeps It Up
Wahlstrom had another rite of passage, as one of the post-game media interviews: “It’s just been really fun. I’ve enjoyed every moment. Coming to the rink with these guys is so much fun. I’m going to continue to learn, continue to play great without the puck, and just go from there.”
He also said Pageau is of course a wonderful linemate, who’s taken him under his wing. Pageau for his part praised Wahlstrom for his attention to defensive details, and his always asking questions.
More from Wahlstrom on his role on the power play: "I have an easy job: Just rip them and win puck battles."#Isles— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) February 23, 2021
- The guys discussed this on a recent Islanders Anxiety podcast, and Staple alluded to it in one of the tweets referenced above (and asked a bit in the post-game): Wahlstrom is trigger-happy, and that’s both kind of refreshing but also might need some adjustment as he goes forward...at least at even strength. He acknowledged he’s still learning where the soft spots will be. Throw all that aside for a moment though: That heavy shot of his is most welcome on the power play, and it was key to creating the fat rebound for Pageau’s winner.
- It is a joy to watch Adam Pelech do his cobra stick thing along the boards. They always think they’re getting away with the puck. They just about never do.
- Can’t say it enough, just a strong, big game from Varlamov. The two goals allowed were as close as you can get to unstoppable. On everything else, it was difficult to see how he could be beaten.
- I love Pageau’s one-becomes-two-fisted goal celebration. It’s already become quite familiar, and I suspect you’ll see lots of Island youth players emulating that one over the next few years.
- I feel bad for the Sabres right now, but man am I relieved the Islanders keep taking both points from them. These games have been close, though each of them quite different.
A couple days’ break but then difficult end of the week ahead, with the Bruins on Thursday followed by a back-to-back weekend against the Penguins.