With 20 games left in the season and both teams in at least a three-way fight for the top of the East Division, the New York Islanders started a six-game homestand with an emphatic 8-3 win over the Washington Capitals.
It’s the first of five meetings this month, the first time in four tries that the Islanders beat the team they dumped from the playoffs last summer, and a much-needed scoring outburst for a team that has struggled to sustain offense since the season-ending injury to Anders Lee.
Oh, and about that: The first line in particular has had some difficulties without Lee, and with Leo Komarov most recently lining up in his spot. But tonight everything was gravy, with Mathew Barzal logging a highlight-reel hat trick and his first five-point game since his free-wheeling rookie year.
The Isles had several three-goal leads, but the first two times they let the Capitals get one back. Despite that, Semyon Varlamov’s steady glove and assertive positioning kept things from getting too uncomfortable once the Isles pulled ahead.
First Period: There will be goals...eventually
“An auspicious start...is that the word?” —Butch
It was rough start, is what the MSG crew was saying, and it felt like a bad “here we go again” omen when the Capitals opened scoring just a minute into the game. An exchange at the blueline with some help from the linesman kept the puck in the Isles zone, and Semyon Varlamov didn’t appear to get any look at a John Carlson shot from high in the zone.
That came after a delay just 30 seconds in, when TJ Oshie took out his own goalie as he cruised behind the net. It’s the kind of shoulder-to-the-goalie’s-head collision that would draw much ire and accusations of headhunting if Oshie were wearing an Isles jersey.
Ilya Samsonov was down, and left for observation. He would return with about three minutes left in the period — appearing to come out and kick Vitek Vanecek out of his crease — but not before the Islanders put two past Vanacek to take a lead they would never relinquish.
Their first shot against Vanacek tied the game, Jordan Eberle completing a sweet cross-ice pass from Leo Komarov at 5:02. (You read that correctly.)
the pass, the goal...— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) April 1, 2021
*chef's kiss* pic.twitter.com/YLAokGqURN
That goal was consistent with some good play and coordination as the Isles rebounded from the early opener. At the intermission, Shannon Hogan asked Eberle about developing chemistry with Komarov, and Eberle and AJ each said with genuine sincerity that yes, it helps that Komarov is “predictable.” But the question and the initial part of the response still made me chuckle, so...
Q: "Why is Leo Komarov a good fit on that line and can you feel the chemistry evolving?"— Dominik & LHHFriends (@LHHockey) April 2, 2021
A: "Uh, yeah..." pic.twitter.com/bY8wNRt2sd
But anyway, back to the first period, because quite a bit happened. Both teams took their turns with sustained, defense-exhausting possession in the other team’s zone, but the goal eruption would not truly begin until there was just four minutes left.
It started with an absolute beauty from Barzal: Unassisted, starting from his goal line, eluding all of the Capitals and making them all feel shame:
A minute and a half later, a good Isles forecheck led to a gimme for Brock Nelson as the Islanders hounded the front of the net to make it 3-1, with their first tally against Samsonov.
Just 22 seconds later, the Isles gave one back, to Daniel Sprong, on a sneaky faceoff win and quick shot in the Isles zone.
But another good forecheck helped restore the two-goal lead just a minute later, Barzal finishing a spinorama after Samsonov overplayed the angle.
Another please!— Isles on MSG+ (@IslesMSGN) April 1, 2021
Barzal with his 2nd goal of the 1ST PERIOD pic.twitter.com/JCeAqZ3pp8
Second Period: The goals shall continue
The Isles continued the pressure and built their first three-goal lead after — this again — more sustained forechecking leading to a fortunate bounce goal for Casey Cizikas as he hounded the net. That came three minutes into the period and teased a blowout that would never fully arrive.
A little over five minutes into the period, Barzal had the clearest, least contested breakaway I can recall seeing in his Islanders career. He had lots of time to pick his spot and make a dramatic hat trick capper. He picked his spot, but he was slow in trying to go upstairs, and Samsonov got a full glove on it to end the try.
A few minutes later, we had a potential classic momentum swing, as the Islanders were called for a quite dubious too many men penalty while their defensemen made the long change. The Capitals, as they have on half their power plays against the Isles, converted on that one — though through a fortunate bounce. Semyon Varlamov made the initial save on the trademark Alex Ovechkin one-timer, but the rebound bounced in off the skate of TJ Oshie, who was driving by and none the wiser.
Thankfully, the Capitals defense continued to spring its leaks. Yet again, Barzal was left alone behind them at the Capitals blueline, where he accepted a lead pass from Andy Greene and timed his pass perfectly to Jordan Eberle, who finished the two-on-one to restore the three-goal lead at 6-3.
Eberle's second goal in slow-mo is EVERYTHING. pic.twitter.com/ORmyp3nNBW— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) April 2, 2021
But just as it looked like the Isles would reach the third period with supreme comfort, the Capitals got one back yet again. The Capitals led an opportunistic rush up the ice with a 3-on-2 that became a 3-on-3, but the Isles didn’t get their coverage straightened out. Carlson rushed all the way to the doorstep, where he was left wide open to convert a pass from Jakub Vrana with just a minute left in the period.
6-4 going into the third.
Third Period: Hat trick party
Though you’re never truly sure, it felt like the Islanders finally locked things up when Josh Bailey finished another good forechecking sequence just three minutes into the final period.
That made it 7-4, and no further goals were to come until 18:54, when Barzal finished a banner night with yet one more variation on a highlight goal: Batting a rebound out of the air — and at legal height, after Anthony Beauvillier swung and missed at illegal height — and on what I’m told is Major League Baseball’s opening day.
That gave us our first live hats in a long time and our final score of 8-4. Much posturing and jawing occurred in the final minute, as Nic Dowd did foolish things and heard about it from Matt Martin, among others. (Dowd and Casey Cizikas would continue jawing across the center red line as the buzzer sounded and the refs tried to shoo the players off the ice.)
Trotz on the end of game shenanigans: "It all started with their 26 (Dowd), following Pageau all over the ice, cross-checked him about eight times... It's just unnecessary."— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) April 2, 2021
Martin and Zdeno Chara gamely engaged in a wrestle-duel to extinguish the clock and make sure no one got hurt with actual blows.
These teams, they’ll meet again.
“Every time you play them, there will be tight checking and high emotion. I’m sure they’ll come back next time with a response, and play tough, and we’ll have to match that.”
Hey Barry Trotz, was that high-event binge fun or maddening?
“These games are fun, because you’ve got two good teams, two intense teams. Ideally you want to feel like you have control, but...Washington has some special players, lots of weapons, so you’re going to give up some stuff.”
Notching 3G-2A in his team's 8-4 win vs the Caps tonight, Mathew Barzal passes John Tonelli and ties Pat Lafontaine for 4th in career 5+ point games by a player in @NYIslanders franchise history (4). He now only trails only Bryan Trottier (15), Mike Bossy (15) & Denis Potvin (5) pic.twitter.com/AYo7v0Smxj— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) April 2, 2021
It’s a three-way tie at the top with 50 points for D.C., Pittsburgh, and the Isles. The Capitals are in Newark tomorrow night, the Isles host the Flyers Saturday, the Penguins (who beat the Bruins tonight) remain in Boston for a rematch on Saturday.