The New York Islanders were pushed to the brink in their first-round series with the Carolina Hurricanes by a familiar flaw as they lost Game 4 at home, convincingly, 5-2 on Sunday afternoon in Elmont.
A good but all-too-brief start for the Islanders was short-circuited by an early Hurricanes 5-on-3, and though things remained close throughout the first, the Hurricanes took advantage of another power play — this time deserved — to make it 2-0 early in the second. They never looked back, and the game quickly became a dud.
Going into the series, and really all season long, the Islanders’ power play was a major concern because it typically provides nothing but a momentum self-kill. Worse, the Hurricanes’ aggressive penalty kill creates shorthanded chances, and Carolina’s own array of talent makes them dangerous in both phases of special teams.
Such was the case in Game 4. Though the Isles scored a rare shorthanded goal themselves, it came in garbage time after the game was long since decided. Another ingredient the Isles rode to any success they had this season, Ilya Sorokin, was again just alright. He’s not at fault for the series deficit, but he hasn’t provided the otherworldly performances the Isles have come to expect.
And now, with their backs against the wall, they’ll need all of the above to change if they’re to reel off three straight wins for an unlikely comeback from this 3-1 series deficit.
First Period: Great, brief start, and then...#refshowboating
The Islanders came out on fire, creating pressure, getting some really good looks. Ryan Pulock showed patience and creativity from the blueline to get himself a couple of dangerous shots from the high slot instead of just firing from the blueline.
But that pressure stopped with an egregious goalie interference call, with Wes McCauley taking the bait and sending Zach Parise off after he was dumped into Antti Raanta by a Canes defenseman. It was such a glaring contrast to Game 2 when Sorokin had to make multiple groin-stretching stops while a Hurricane piled into and on top of him, without so much of a thought of an interference penalty.
You hate to have to dwell on the officiating, but you can’t talk about the first period without observing its mind-boggling effects. McCauley, who has a bit of that unfortunate Paul Stewart-style “I’m part of the show” instinct, put himself into the game. The Islanders didn’t respond well to it — but there shouldn’t have been anything to respond to in the first place.
The bad call on Parise proved costly when Ryan Pulock was sent off for boarding to make it a 5-on-3. It was originally called a major, probably so they could review it with a cooler head than McCauley brings to live action; that review showed Jack Drury had turned his numbers after Pulock was already committing to the check, so it was reduced to a minor.
(It’s funny, on the national broadcast every former player and commentator agreed it should be just a minor, but before it was reversed, Brad Meier, who exists to basically say whatever the refs called is correct, agreed with the initial major call. They did not ask him if he agreed with the reversal too.)
So Pulock was spared a bigger punishment, but the Hurricanes opened scoring on that 5-on-3, Seth Jarvis finishing just 4:05 into a game that had started off so well for the Islanders.
The soft, puzzling calls included a one-handed “slash” call on Paul Stastny, that seemed to be a sad makeup call. The aggressive Hurricanes penalty kill continued to win the day, however, and the Islanders got nothing going with the extra man.
But then McCauley The Showman struck again: With Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the box after a foolish swat at Pierre Engvall’s face on the forecheck, the Isles soon got a glorious chance for a 5-on-3. Except no: As Mathew Barzal carried into the offensive zone, he turned toward the boards and was crosschecked from behind by Brent Burns. It was a basic and easy a penalty as you can call. Instead, McCauley called Burns but also...called Barzal for embellishment to negate what would’ve been a 5-on-3.
Burns to the box for cross-checking, Barzal for embellishment, thoughts? pic.twitter.com/DNhkCDfVh8— Nathan “Grav" (@NathanGraviteh) April 23, 2023
So it was a broken and predictably fruitless power play, though the Isles rebuilt some pressure after things returned to 5-on-5. Sebastian Aho The Better came closest to tying it, hitting the post from distance.
Unfortunately, Matt Martin took the bait on a scrum at the end of the first period, knocking Mackenzie MacEachern down after MacEachern ran Casey Cizikas, and Martin received the only penalty from the exchange. Big mistake.
Second Period: No response
That played right into the Hurricanes’ hands, and despite a good start to the penalty kill to open the second period, the Hurricanes eventually got control and converted on a great down-low play. Martin Necas put in a cross-crease pass from Stefan Noesen to make it 2-0 just 1:15 into the second period.
After that, the Hurricanes really pressed their game and frustrated the Isles. Brock Nelson also took a bad interference penalty six minutes in when he took a piece of Necas away from the puck. The Isles survived that kill but struggled to generate anything, with the home crowd periodically rallying to urge them on.
With 6:30 left, a brutal turnover and a dagger. Alex Romanov misfired an attempted dump-in that flubbed straight to Aho The Lesser, who went the other way with MacEachern on a 2-on-1. They played it perfectly, MacEachern slipping a pass under Pulock that Aho redirected past Sorokin to make it 3-0.
Late in the period, the Isles had a brief bit of sustained pressure and drew a holding call on MacEachern. The ensuing power play was more of the same, though for the second half the Hurricanes paused their aggressive PK approach, so the Isles at least had sustained possession.
They couldn’t get anything good from it, however. The power play and the period ended in sadness, with the Isles looking at perhaps their final period of the season in Elmont.
Third Period: Perfunctory
Before this game I foolishly noted how close the entire series had been, outside of the final four minutes of Game 3, so it’d be hard to imagine this one being any different.
Yeah, about that. Desperate to get back in the game, the Islanders pushed early and got burned for a breakaway and a 2-on-1. Seth Jarvis converted the first one, a nice move that Sorokin got just a piece of with his glove, but not enough, to make it 4-0 at 1:20.
Adam Pelech finally got the Isles on the board 1:54 later on a broken play. A puck caromed high off the glass behind Raanta, and Brock Nelson got his stick in there just before Raanta’s smother attempt. That helped it squirt out to an alert Pelech, who pinched in and left no doubt in burying it upstairs.
That gave the Isles a little bit of life, and they created a few stretches of pressure afterward, but the game was too far gone. Sorokin faced a couple of big chances late and MacEachern beat him from the slot with six minutes to make it 5-1.
After a routine late-and-pointless penalty from Cal Clutterbuck for throwing extra punches after a check on Jaccob [sic] Slavin, an oddity: An Islanders shorthanded goal, and a goal from Bo Horvat.
Even with Mat Barzal’s return, Horvat has continued to struggle to make a difference offensively. Who knows if this one will finally break the ice, but it was a nice, decisive finish on a breakaway with 2:03 left. That gave us the 5-2 final score, for whatever it’s worth.
But before the final horn, a little more damage: Aho of the Isles sent a routine backhand up the right wing in the neutral zone, but it was maybe a dozen feet from Casey Cizikas, who took it directly under the chin/throat area. It took him a while to get up and leave the ice under his own power.
The rhythm of the series continues with Game 5 on Tuesday night in Raleigh. If the Islanders are able to extend the series, then it will be an extra day before Game 6 is back on Long Island on Friday.
But first thing’s first. The Islanders need to avoid dying by special teams.