Maple Leafs clinch, eliminate Islanders on wild Saturday night


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Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak talks after giving his team a chance. His remarkable play kept them alive as long as possible before the Maple Leafs eliminated them. Halak allowed six goals on 155 shots during a five-game win streak. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Islanders.

Even though the Islanders won for the fifth straight time, it wasn’t good enough to prevent the Maple Leafs from eliminating them. They did their part by going into Newark on a special sendoff for all-time Devil Patrik Elias- defeating New Jersey 4-2.

Jaroslav Halak was the story making 37 saves to win for a fourth consecutive start. He was magnificent early with the Devils dominating play in a lopsided first period. If not for Halak, the Islanders would’ve been blown out. He made 14 saves in a scoreless first in which his team only registered four shots on Devils backup Keith Kinkaid.

The Isles turned it around by scoring twice in the second on 10 shots. The first coming from defenseman Adam Pelech, who was left wide open in the slot to finish off a Nikolay Kulemin feed. After a power play expired, leading goalscorer Anders Lee was able to deflect home a Nick Leddy point shot for his 32nd.  Rookie Anthony Beauvillier set it up.

While Halak kept the Devils at bay, the Islanders took advantage of their chances. One such instance came when Devils captain Andy Greene had a perfect laser ticketed for the top part of the net only to see the puck ring off the left crossbar next to Halak. Before you knew it, the Isles trapped pinching Devil defenseman Damon Severson with Alan Quine setting up Jason Chimera’s 19th at 3:52 of the third for a three-goal lead.

Halak finally showed he was human when he accidentally kicked a Beau Bennett loose rebound into his own net 1:08 later to make it 3-1. It was about the only way the Devils could beat him. Halak had not given up a goal in 139:22 before Bennett’s fortunate break at the five-minute mark of period three.

But a ill advised Miles Wood hooking minor resulted in Lee getting his second of the game on a power play for his team-leading 33rd. A great read by leading set up man Josh Bailey, who passed across for an open Lee in front. Kinkaid misread it leaving the net wide open for a Lee backhand from Bailey and Leddy at 8:11 to make it 4-1.

Even though they played a much better game and probably deserved a different result, the Devils were stoned by Halak. Even if a Dalton Prout one-timer was redirected by Bennett with over two seconds remaining to give the home crowd something else to cheer before the players said goodbye in the final game of the season at The Rock. That’s the kind of year it was for them.

When it was over, Halak was congratulated by excited teammates. He was the biggest reason they stayed alive as long as they did. An amazing story considering the Islanders banished him to Bridgeport through waivers after a huge struggle. When they finally woke up and brought him back on loan, he reclaimed his job from an overtaxed Thomas Greiss.

Maybe when the Islanders look back on the season, they’ll wonder why they waited so long to bring Halak back. It was apparent to everybody that Jean-Francois Berube isn’t ready to be an NHL goalie. Due to Berube’s problems when he did play, Greiss was forced back in net on 3/13 at home. A game he was supposed to finally have off following a hectic nine-game road trip which saw the Isles ride Greiss for nearly the entirety. He made all nine starts and was pulled twice during losses in which Berube provided no relief.

Berube was so bad against the Hurricanes that interim coach Doug Weight had no choice. He put Greiss back in during a chaotic second period. He was gassed allowing four goals on 20 shots. Even though he was in for a comeback overtime win at Carolina the next night, Greiss eventually broke down. Following a 3-2 win over the Rangers at MSG on 3/22, he didn’t win another game.

In fact, Halak made the last five starts after replacing Greiss in a crushing 6-3 loss at the Flyers. A game that saw them allow five of the six goals in a awful first. Halak only allowed two but was charged with the loss. The only one he suffered following his return. He won his first game back at Pittsburgh on 3/24 in a shootout making 37 saves while stopping two of three Pittsburgh shooters.

How special was he? Over those five starts (all wins), Halak went 5-0-0 allowing six goals on 155 shots. If you want to compute the numbers, go right ahead. I don’t need to. That is sensational. He did everything he could to give the Islanders a chance.

Unfortunately, their luck ran out last night. In a game full of emotion, the Maple Leafs rallied from a one-goal deficit to beat the Pens 5-3 at Air Canada Centre. A frantic finish in the last three minutes was needed for Toronto to qualify for their first postseason since ’12-13. Coach Mike Babcock was able to do it in Year Two thanks to an array of young talent the likes we haven’t seen in quite a while.

Say this for the Pens. It doesn’t matter who they have out. As long as Sidney Crosby is playing along with Phil Kessel, they’re capable of winning any game. Especially with role players Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel and underrated defensemen Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and Ian Cole. They had no Malkin again and Letang, who is done for the year. It doesn’t matter. They play such a tough system under Mike Sullivan that they might be able to defend the Cup.

Toronto fans booed Kessel. He still scored his 23rd to open the scoring. James van Riemsdyk answered right back 29 seconds later to tie it up. A Tyler Bozak power play goal early in the second period on a remarkable pass from rookie William Nylander put the Leafs ahead. But that Crosby guy scored from his knees on a Pens power play to tie it.

By that point, the Leafs were without starting goalie Frederik Andersen, who was knocked out of the game by Tom Sestito on a brutal goaltender interference. Sestito tried to skate through traffic but bumped into Andersen hard knocking him back with his head crashing hard on the ice. It was a scary moment. Andersen got up but was clearly woozy showing concussion symptoms.

In a game they wanted to get it done in and not go to the final day against slumping Columbus, the Leafs needed backup Curtis McElhinney to save them. A veteran goalie who the Rangers lit up in the first half prompting John Tortorella to waive him. The Leafs claimed him and he’s been the Toronto backup ever since. He replaced an ineffective Jhonas Enroth.

McElhinney came into an impossible situation and played admirably. He didn’t have a ton of work but stopped 12 of 14 shots to pick up the biggest win of his career. The final stop being one he’ll remember for the rest of his life. We’ll get to that part in a bit.

With the game tied 2-2 in the third, Crosby had Guentzel all set up with a open side. But Guentzel missed. As fate would have it, Guentzel scored on an excuse me shot that went off Jake Gardiner’s skate slowly past a stunned McElhinney for a Pens’ one-goal lead with 13:09 left. Was it gonna happen again? Another Leafs collapse?

But with the fans urging them on, the Leafs responded. Following a crucial blocked shot by Brian Boyle in his zone, Toronto’s checking line got the puck deep. A big play by former Islander Matt Martin (imagine that) kept the puck in for brilliant rookie Auston Matthews. The 19-year old American made a great play behind the net winning battle to get the puck to a pinching Matt Hunwick. Hunwick then made a brilliant no look feed across to recent call up Kasperi Kapanen for his first career NHL goal which came with 5:30 remaining. The exact prospect Toronto acquired in the Kessel trade tied the game at three.

The Leafs continued to press for more against Marc-Andre Fleury. It was another first-year player who scored the playoff clincher. On sustained pressure, Connor Brown tipped in a Gardiner point shot over Fleury to give the Leafs a 4-3 lead with 2:48 left. Bedlam in Toronto. Brown quietly has 20 goals. He’s been a key cog who’s been overlooked due to Matthews, Nylander and Mitchell Marner.

It wasn’t over. Not as long as Crosby was still out. He nearly tied it on a great set up with time to spare. But McElhinney read it perfectly sliding across to make a remarkable pad stop to rob Crosby. If he doesn’t, who knows what happens.

Instead, it was fittingly Matthews who scored into an open net for his 40th goal of the season. An amazing feat for a remarkable talent. He really is special. He is gonna win the Calder Trophy beating out another unbelievable player in Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine. They went 1-2 in last year’s draft. Matthews has done for Toronto what didn’t seem possible. Get them back in the playoffs in his first year.

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An excited bunch of Maple Leafs celebrate their playoff clinching 5-3 win over the Penguins at Air Canada Centre. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Maple Leafs.

With the Leafs celebrating the win, it eliminated the Islanders and Lightning. They had each hoped it would go to Sunday with more meaningful games. But neither will make the tournament.

For the Islanders, it’s gotta be a question of ‘what if.’ They proved they could win without their captain John Tavares. They got great contributions from everyone including promising former first round pick Joshua Ho-Sang. What if they had called him up sooner? They played a much better brand of hockey under Weight than former coach Jack Capuano. What if they had made the move sooner? But the biggest what if is what if they had brought back Halak sooner to help Greiss out?

Those answers remain cloudy. For the Islanders, they’ll close out the season at home Sunday against the Senators. They will wind up with either 92 or possibly 93 or 94 points. But they won’t be in the playoffs for a second straight year at Barclays Center.

What will happen in the off-season? Does the new management keep GM Garth Snow? What about Weight, who deserves to have the interim tag taken off? Does he want to coach them? He’s certainly good at it. He was also an assistant GM. What’s the story moving forward? It remains to be seen.

Only two playoff match-ups are set in the East. The Pens are the two seed and the Blue Jackets are the three in a 2/3 first round meeting in the Metro Division Quarterfinals. The Canadiens are the Atlantic Division winners while the Rangers are the first wildcard crossing over to face Montreal in the Atlantic Quarters. Depending on what happens Sunday will determine who the Capitals face. It can be either Boston or Toronto. Ottawa is locked into the two seed in the Atlantic and doesn’t know if it’s the Bruins or Leafs.

Out West, it looks like the Blackhawks will take on final wildcard Nashville, The Predators finished with an identical amount of points (94) to the Flames but Calgary had more ROW. The Wild will take on the Blues in a 2/3 battle in the Central Division Quarters. Depending on today’s results,the Ducks could get the Flames in a potential bloodbath. The Oilers would host the Sharks in a 2 vs 3 Pacific quarterfinal match-up. Anaheim needs one point to finish first in the Pacific. The Oilers can win the division if they win their game in regulation or overtime and the Ducks lose in regulation due to the tiebreaker. Each are tied in ROW with 42. Anaheim has 103 points to Edmonton’s 101.

I would like to thank each of my goalies for costing me a top three finish in my fantasy league. Special thanks go out to Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Jones and Corey Crawford. May you never be on my team again. Ditto for Malkin and all the injured players I had. You can’t make it up. 😆

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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