For most of the first two months, the Islanders couldn’t get out of their own way. Until their last two games- both home wins over Calgary and more impressively over Pittsburgh in dramatic fashion- they were heading nowhere with six wins in their first 20 games. Maybe returning home to Barclays Center was the elixir.
Improving to 8-10-4 thanks to consecutive victories this week, the Islanders are feeling better about themselves. After defeating the Flames 2-1 in overtime thanks to Thomas Hickey’s beautiful redirect of a John Tavares shot pass, they followed it up with a huge 5-3 win over the Penguins on Rivalry Night in Brooklyn.
For sure, this was an emotional win that didn’t come easy. For two periods, the Islanders had the better of the play and led by three on goals from Johnny Boychuk, Jason Chimera and Casey Cizikas, whose big finish on a misdirection started by Andrew Ladd gave them a three-goal lead headed to the third period.
But they were facing the defending champs. Pittsburgh is a great team capable to erasing big deficits fast. They woke up in time for the third with Connor Sheary scoring 32 seconds in from Patric Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby. When Justin Schultz beat Thomas Greiss with 9:20 left, panic set in.
I tweeted, “Are the Islanders about to blow it again?” To which one of my Isles’ buddies replied: “Come on. This is a serious question? Of course they are.”
It was an unreal play by Crosby who hustled back in the neutral zone to catch Tavares with a great backcheck. He stole the puck and got onside allowing Brian Dumoulin to easily set up Evgeni Malkin for a tap in which tied the contest with 6:52 remaining.
The only question that remained is whether they’d lose. My Isles’ pal tweeted, “Do they win it now or overtime?” I knew he was referring to the Pens. Considering how it’s gone for the Islanders, who could blame him? When your team consistently blows leads and finds ways to lose, it’s easy to be pessimistic.
What followed was comical. Continuing to play for easy target Jack Capuano, the Islanders found a way to win it in the final minute. After being pinned in by the Pens’ third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, a good defensive play by Tavares got them out of trouble. As fate would have it, some more hustle from Tavares led directly to Boychuk feeding Hickey for a point shot that Anders Lee redirected home past Matt Murray with 26.6 seconds left. Three seconds later, Nikolay Kulemin added an empty netter from Cizikas to seal it. The two goals three seconds apart are an Islanders’ franchise record.
It was Lee’s fourth goal in four games. He’s one of the young players the Isles need to get out of this. Entering tonight’s match at Washington which is a tough back-to-back, they still are last in the Metropolitan Division with 20 points. It’s important for them to follow up last night’s victory with another tonight.
It won’t be easy. Facing the Caps who haven’t played since a bad 4-2 loss at Toronto on Hockey Night In Canada should be a challenge. The Capitals are well rested and will want to erase the sting of that last defeat. They also bring a 13-6-2 mark into play ranking third in the Metro. They’ve played less games than the Rangers and Pens. Fresh off Casino Night, they’ll try to make up some ground.
You know Alexander Ovechkin will be in a great mood. Even in a year where they haven’t scored as much, Ovechkin leads the Caps with 12 goals. Nicklas Backstrom paces them with 20 points (6-14-20) and Marcus Johansson is 9-6-15. T.J. Oshie has eight goals but remains out with an injury. They’ve gotten little from Evgeny Kuznetsov, who continues to struggle since a bad postseason. He’s only 3-6-9 thus far. Vet Justin Williams has been a non-factor with only two goals. Andre Burakovsky has 10 points.
Washington recalled Jakub Vrana for tonight’s game. He’ll debut on the second line with Kuznetsov and Burakovsky. A 2014 first round pick, the 20-year old from Prague had nine goals and seven assists for 16 points with AHL Hershey. In parts of three AHL seasons, he’s totaled 55 points in 57 games.
What the Caps do well is keep the puck out. Thanks to rating Vezina winner Braden Holtby (10 W 2.18 .920) and a solid D featuring John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt, they rank fourth in team defense allowing 2.24 goals per game which is tied with Columbus. Their differential is plus-nine.
The Islanders are minus-11 and rank 24th allowing 2.96 goals per game. They can take solace knowing they held the Pens down for two periods. But they also were sloppy in allowing Pittsburgh to tie it with some poor coverage with top defenseman Travis Hamonic caught out of position on Malkin’s goal. He’s struggled mightily with a team worst minus-11 rating. That’s not a coincidence. Too often, he’s gotten beaten. He must be better.
Greiss has started the last three games winning twice. He made 31 saves last night. Does Capuano stick with him or go back to Jaroslav Halak? Considering they have played better in front of Greiss, maybe they should keep him in. It is the second meeting versus Washington. Greiss got the second game of the season making 26 stops in a 2-1 loss on Oct. 15.
So, can they make it three in a row and beat two of the best teams in the East? We shall see.