The New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs returned from the All-Star break for a spirited, intense match that came down to the wire, with the Isles getting a late winner to complete a season sweep of the northern blueshirts.
Unlike the prior two meetings, which ended in OT on Long Island — those rare occasions when the Isles have gone to extra time and garnered the bonus point — this one was a regulation win to formally end the All-Star party that was hosted by Toronto on the weekend.
Kyle MacLean scored his first NHL goal on a breakaway beauty, and that would’ve also been the winner but for a late Leafs power play equalizer after a bad Oliver Wahlstrom penalty. But the Isles stunned the relieved Toronto fans soon after, with castaway Leaf Pierre Engvall notching the winner with 2:02 left.
Ilya Sorokin absolutely played his part in the win, particularly finding shots through traffic as the Leafs scrambled for an equalizer. He finished with 34 saves, 14 of them in the third period.
The game began with intensity, no rust shown on either side — even Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech looked pretty good coming in off injury layoffs.
Ryan Reaves performed the only role left for him by boarding Matt Martin late in the first period, and Bo Horvat even got in a rare fight with someone who goes by the name of Simon Benoit early in the second, a response to that fella and the Leafs targeting Barzal.
Mat Barzal, who skated 23:01 as Patrick Roy continues to treat him like a top forward, opened scoring in the first period by finishing a nice rush he started with Mike Reilly.
That was all the scoring in the first, though the Leafs tied it early in the second at 4-on-4, after Horvat’s extra penalty erased what was left of a Tyler Bertuzzi call from the end of the first:
it only took two minutes for the Islanders to regain the lead, on the first NHL goal for Kyle MacLean, who was in the penalty box serving an extra penalty for Bo Horvat.
It was a fortuitous play but also a very heads-up play by Cal Clutterbuck, who swept the puck diagonally through the neutral zone right as MacLean was emerging from the box. MacLean froze Ilya Samsonov, tucking a backhand behind the prone and oft-maligned Leafs goalie.
FIRST NHL GOAL FOR THIS GUY! pic.twitter.com/oGM3So2IrU— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) February 6, 2024
#Isles Kyle MacLean on his first NHL goal: "It happened quick. It's cool to see it cross the goal line. A bit of a relief. It's a special moment."— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) February 6, 2024
Did Dad (Isles assistant John MacLean) say anything?
"Not much. Maybe a pat on the back. Cool moment for sure."
It was nailbiting, back-and-forth stuff the rest of the way, through the rest of the second and all of the third. Both teams looked dangerous, but the Leafs steadily escalated their push as the minutes ticked by. The dam finally broke not from 5-on-5 pressure, however, but from an opportunity the Isles handed to the Leafs.
The Isles management has very publicly said Oliver Wahlstrom is going to get a full, fresh look under Patrick Roy. So it was disappointing to see Wahlstrom take an unnecessary neutral zone interference penalty against the Leafs fourth line with just over five minutes left in Regulation and the Isles fighting to hang on to the 2-1 lead.
Though the Isles penalty kill was aggressive to start, they still succumbed to Toronto’s dangerous power play. John Tavares deflected a point shot past Sorokin 52 seconds into the advantage. That tied it at 2-2 with 4:38 to go.
In a switch from the Lane Lambert regime, Wahlstrom was not immediately glued to the bench, and his line got another shift with the game tied and three minutes to go.
Likewise, the Isles did not take their foot off the pedal.
A couple of good shifts by the Engvall-Nelson-Palmieri line featured multiple chances, particularly for Kyle Palmieri. After Palmieri misfired on a great one-timer setup, he recovered to set up Nelson for a shot from the slot that was stopped by Ilya Samsonov; but Engvall slipped the rebound through from the top of the crease for what proved to be the winner.
Sorokin made another set of impressive saves as time wound down; Scott Mayfield made another inexplicably incomplete up the boards that was no trouble for the Leafs to stop at the point; and the Isles, as they have each and every time this season, failed to seal a game by scoring into an empty net.
Ending in a Scrum
The final horn blew with a clear, and then a mini-scrum including Tavares and Mayfield. That started with Cal Clutterbuck delivering a nasty kidney crosscheck on Tavares in the low slot to remove the last possibility of a scoring chance.
Tavares understandably took exception and delivered a “Hey, WTF?” chop to his buddy, who used that as pretense to go after Tavares again. But Mayfield jumped in and those two tumbled to the ice, where they presumably came to a verbal agreement that there’s nothing more to do or say here.
I think they miss him:
In a Nutshell
Huge win for the Isles, who need every point they can get as they try to climb back into the playoff seeds. Not much harm done to the Leafs, who are in wild card position but do not have to worry about losing a playoff spot.
The Isles head back home — and they get to bring Barzal home with them — to face the rather surging Lightning Thursday night on Long Island.