It was worth the wait.
The New York Islanders were the second-last team to begin their NHL season, but they delivered for their home opener on Saturday night with some early delight, some middle-section heartache, and a late winner to knock off the Buffalo Sabres, 3-2, in regulation.
Through the nuance of their usual schedule vs. the new era in Elmont, it was the Islanders’ first time opening their season with a home-ice win since 1995, when the 1995-95 season didn’t start until January due to the first lockout.
Brock Nelson opened the season’s goal account early, formally kicking off Brocktober just under six minutes into the opening period.
For a moment late in the first period, it looked like Brock doubled his tally, but the goal to make it 2-0 for the Isles hit Kyle Palmieri before redirecting in off a Sabre skate. Regardless, the Isles headed into the second period with a 2-0 lead, and things were looking good. They even had a semi-decent power play early in the game.
The second period was much different, however. The Sabres got more and more dangerous, their big, skilled forwards driving the net for good looks down low, while their defense jumped in to sustain pressure.
Buffalo got one goal back early in the second, after some back-and-forth scrambles in the netural zone led to Jordan Greenway receiving a 2-on-1 pass, passing up the initial shot and then slipping the puck behind Ilya Sorokin.
The Sabres kept up the bulk of pressure through the second period; the Isles weren’t letting off the gas, but Buffalo’s second efforts were outmuscling the Isles. It was a bit of a relief to get to the second intermission hanging on to the lead, ready to regroup.
But the Sabres got the equalizer early in the third, on a bouncing puck and miscue between Matt Martin and Noah Dobson behind the Isles net. Casey Mittelstadt pounced and lifted a perfect backhand past Sorokin to tie it at 2-2 at 2:34.
New game. New tension. But the Islanders kept the ice from tilting further and they broke through at 13:40.
Shortly after Barzal was robbed by Devon Levi in the low slot, the Islanders continued pressure over a couple of shifts — interrupted by some scary counterattacks by the Sabres, including one shot off Ilya Sorokin’s right post.
Adam Pelech unleashed a shot from the top of the zone that was deflected by Casey Cizikas and past Levi, who immediately complained of a high stick.
There wasn’t much question that Cizikas’ stick was below everything — his shoulder, the crossbar, the moon — but in the meantime the Sabers challenged that the play was offside on the zone entry.
Noah Dobson had preceded the puck over the line, but he was backing in and preparing to be checked as he cradled the puck. The review was totally up to interpretation — did he “have control?” etc. — and this time fortune and interpretation was on the Isles’ side.
The NHL now posts details of its reviews in the “Situation Room” section of its website:
Video review confirmed that Noah Dobson* had possession and control of the puck as he entered the attacking zone prior to Cizikas’ goal. Rule 83.1 states, in part, that “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered ‘off-side,’ provided he had possession and control of the puck prior to his skates crossing the leading edge of the blue line.”*
So with a little over six minutes left, the Isles had the lead and, thanks to the unsuccessful challenge, a power play.
That lasted only 37 seconds, however, as Bo(wie) Horvat crosschecked a man from behind at the Sabres blueline. What remained after the ensuing 4-on-4 was a little over 30 seconds of Sabres power play, their first of the night.
The Isles played well in closing out the game, keeping the Sabres from removing Levi for a sixth attacker on the first few attempts. Anders Lee had some nice moments using the boards to eat clock and frustrate the Sabers, and his linemate J-G Pageau joined the fun disrupting the center of the ice.
A late penalty to Adam Pelech made the final 24 seconds scarier than they needed to be, but the Isles got a big clear from Horvat to ice the game.
After waiting so long to begin their season, the Isles have to sit a bit again. Their next game is Tuesday when the Coyotes visit.