The New York Islanders beat the Buffalo Sabres by a score of 5-2 for the second time in 24 hours and third time in a row, extending their win streak to five games while completing a three-game sweep of the East Division’s doormat.
The Sabres have now lost six in a row and continue to look devoid of answers. Playing the division leaders three times at Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders have yet to lose in regulation, was awful timing. The result will only increase calls for firing coach Ralph Krueger, something that feels like it could happen at any minute. But the errors, misfortune and mess surrounding that team go well beyond who’s standing behind the bench.
It’s a sad thing to watch from the Buffalo end, but getting six points from this set was essential for the Islanders. New York has played the most games in the division, so banking points and regulation wins — with 15, they have five more of those than Washington and Philadelphia — helps position them in what increasingly looks like a six-team fight for four playoff spots.
The Islanders finished the noon game with a four-point lead for first in the division, though the Capitals were set to play later on Sunday.
First Period: It’s a new morning for Buffalo, maybe?
Just like yesterday, the Sabres started with a decent offensive push and that fresh dose of measured optimism that comes when you’ve read your daily affirmation and think, maybe, just maybe, life isn’t as miserable as it seems. Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall were among the players showing their natural abilities on offense in search of an opening goal.
Unlike yesterday, that goal did not come. It was a decent period for the downtrodden visitors, but the Islanders stuck to their methodical game and generated steady pressure and a few odd-man rushes off bad Sabres pinches. They couldn’t convert, however, and the period finished scoreless.
Second Period: Familiar cruelty
For a moment, it looked like the Islanders’ power play misses would provide an opening for the Sabres to flip the script once their own opportunities inevitably came. The Isles didn’t get much going on a power play that straddled the end of the first and beginning of the second period. A second chance early in the second, when Cody Eakin was whistled for holding Anders Lee at 3:07, also came up empty.
But as Eakin’s penalty expired, the Isles kept possession and kept moving it around like a 5-on-4. Jordan Eberle found Lee at the doorstep, where Rasmus Ristolainen had crosschecked Lee in the back while forgetting to tie up his stick. It was technically an even strength goal to put the Islanders up 1-0.
Barely over a minute later, the Islanders deepened the pain on a rush started by Nick Leddy and finished by Brock Nelson. It was great, precise, quick movement and passing by the Islanders, demonstrating one of the many ways their offense can work when it’s clicking.
The Sabres’ body language screamed, “Here we go again.”
Mathew Barzal was kept off the scoresheet but had a bushel of chances — and one ugly mistake, where Taylor Hall intercepted his pass at the blueline but collapsed from exhaustion (on a 90-second shift) on his breakaway before getting a shot off. Barzal was on fire, and there were hints that the Isles might run away with things if not for the play of Sabres goalie Jonas Johansson.
And the Sabres got their chance to get back into it, with their first power play nine minutes into the period. They definitely threatened, including on a set combo play right off the opening faceoff. But Ilya Sorokin was solid in covering pucks and keeping chances from becoming golden rebounds.
The Islanders killed that one, and six minutes later they put the Sabres in a 3-0 hole. Great skating and patience by Adam Pelech at the blueline, and brilliant vision and playmaking by J-G Pageau to set up Casey Cizikas for a no-doubter.
Also, puzzling defensive approach by Rasmus Dahlin. The two Rasmuses epitomized a mysterious approach to defense throughout this series.
The Isles survived a couple of late threats to break Sorokin’s shutout bid before entering the second intermission with a commanding 3-0 lead.
Third Period: Shutout bid gone, but sweep complete
The first five minutes of the third period were free-wheeling play time. Not that the Islanders got loose defensively, rather they took advantage of the Sabres’ deflation, and their own confidence, to buy time when they needed it to make pinpoint passes, overlap offensively with abandon, and get looks for rushing D like Ryan Pulock and Noah Dobson.
But the Sabres weren’t rolling over. A solid push created a frenzy in the Isles zone, with a backdoor save by Sorokin before Jeff Skinner juggled an airborne puck, swooped around the net, and backhanded it high and in tight to finally get his first goal of the season.
What a way to get that monkey off your back:
That understandably gave the Sabres life, and they strung together a few more good shifts to get back in the game. Their second goal came off the rush, at 9:35, on a good play but a shot Sorokin would want back. The changeup by Colin Miller appeared to handcuff Sorokin as it dropped under his glove, short-side.
So things were uncomfortable for a little bit, but another Sabres defensive comedy opened the way for an oustanding insurance goal by Cal Clutterbuck.
Clutterbuck picked up a bouncing and poorly passed puck at the Sabres blueline, enjoyed extra space after Brandon Davidson toe-picked, and lifted a backhand deke home for a 4-2 lead.
That one came at 12:57. Five minutes later Brock Nelson notched an empty-netter from center ice to put things away.
After doing exactly what they needed in this four-game set against the Devils and Sabres, the Islanders return to challenging competition when they host the Bruins on Tuesday.
It only took 14 years but I think we can officially say that the Isles have gotten their revenge on the Sabres for the 2007 Playoffs.— Michael Leboff (@TheBigLeebowski) March 7, 2021