The Islanders remain a great story this season. On the verge of clinching a playoff berth under Jack Adams candidate Barry Trotz, they entered last night’s road game in Columbus fresh off two big wins this past weekend. Consecutive victories over the Flyers and Coyotes put the Islanders within a point of first place Washington. Both were in action on Tuesday.
With a possibility of over taking the Capitals, the Isles got blanked by the Blue Jackets 4-0. They were unable to muster any offense against Sergei Bobrovsky. The red hot former two-time Vezina winner stopped all 26 shots en route to his eighth shutout. Six have come since the All-Star break.
Columbus was in desperation mode. Having gotten a Bobrovsky shutout in Vancouver to conclude a bad road trip, they knew the Canadiens were in action at home versus the crappy Panthers. They entered yesterday two points behind the Habs for the second wildcard.
Even with the additions of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, the Blue Jackets have had a hard time scoring goals. They haven’t jelled quite the way management envisioned. Instead, inconsistency has lead to costly losses putting the playoffs in jeopardy. Duchene hasn’t produced like he did in Ottawa. Both Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson entered with scoring droughts.
John Tortorella’s team has had to rely heavily on Bobrovsky and emerging power forward Josh Anderson. He has them playing a tight checking style eerily similar to the way the Rangers played under him.
It wasn’t surprising to see how hard fought every inch of the ice was for the Islanders. Even in a solid first period that saw them outshoot the Blue Jackets 10-7, one undisciplined mistake put them behind early on. A bench minor for too many men on the ice handed Columbus an early power play. One of the lowest ranked man-advantages in the league, they made it work when Zach Werenski passed across for an open Dzingel, who beat Thomas Greiss from the left circle at 5:43.
That was the game’s only power play. The only other penalties came with 50 seconds left in the period when Mathew Barzal took exception to a Pierre-Luc Dubois hit that caught the Isles leading scorer down. He went back at Dubois near the benches leading to matching roughing minors.
The odd thing about the first was that despite only a three shot differential, the Isles were in control at five-on-five thanks to their forecheck. They got some good looks on Bobrovsky, who was sharp throughout. His best work came when he robbed Josh Bailey with glove save. He also flashed the leather on Nick Leddy.
In the second, it was a lot of hotly contested battles during shifts between the clubs. You had some edge during scrums. Something you’d expect with a lot on the line. Both Bobrovsky’s glove saves on first Leddy and Bailey came in the first few minutes. He heard the cheers from the fans who earlier in the year had booed him for uncharacteristic play. That hasn’t been the case for two months. Counting last night’s game, he’s 14-7-0 with a 2.00 goals-against-average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts in February and March.
The best chance the Isles got came when pesky checking center Casey Cizikas got behind the Columbus defense and had a breakaway. In an earlier Islander win over Bobrovsky, he victimized the Blue Jackets netminder twice. That included his bread and butter backhand deke off a similar rush. This time, he got back pressure from a hustling Adam McQuaid. Cizikas went to the same move, but McQuaid might have prevented a goal by diving to get his stick on Cizikas’ stick as Bobrovsky made a diving stop to deny the bid.
It was essentially the last great scoring opportunity the Isles had. They didn’t get many more shots on Bobrovsky the rest of the period. Columbus picked up their game to outshoot the Isles 15-9. Greiss gave them a chance by stopping all 15 shots to keep it a one goal deficit headed to the third.
On a shift less than three minutes into the final stanza, a sloppy back pass resulted in a turnover that had an ugly end result for the Islanders. Duchene gathered the mistake and fed Atkinson, who passed for a wide open Panarin behind everyone for a clean breakaway. Having been in a cold streak this month without a goal, the Bread Man didn’t miss. He went high glove side on Greiss for his first goal in 13 games at 2:38 for a 2-0 Columbus lead.
Given how well they checked, it was asking a lot for the Isles to come back. Another mistake led directly to the Jackets third goal. Behind his own net, Johnny Boychuk sent a clear around the boards that was intercepted by a pinching Alex Wennberg. A player who’s struggled mightily, his battle kept the play alive for Oliver Bjorkstrand. He turned and fired a quick wrist shot that surprised Greiss for a unassisted goal with 8:48 remaining.
With the game all but over, Trotz still pulled Greiss even though his team was down three. Seth Jones and Duchene combined to set up Atkinson for an empty netter that erased a eight game drought. It was his 39th.
For the Blue Jackets, it allowed them to keep pace with Montreal, who blew out the defenseless Panthers 6-1. Montreal has 90 points with five games remaining. Columbus has 88 points with six left. In what amounts to a playoff game, the Blue Jackets host the Canadiens tomorrow night.
At the same time, the Hurricanes will host the first place Caps in the second game of a home and home series. Washington took the first game 4-1. Alexander Ovechkin scored his league-leading 49th. Washington is up to 98 points. Three ahead of both the Pens and Isles. All three teams have five games left. The Islanders final five are at Winnipeg tomorrow, home for Buffalo this Saturday with the Maple Leafs visiting Nassau Coliseum on April Fool’s Day, followed by a road game at Florida April 4 and the final game of the season at Washington April 6.
As far as the wildcard race, Carolina is still in the first wildcard with 91 points, 40 ROW (Regulation Overtime Wins) and six games remaining. Montreal is in the second wildcard with 90 points, 39 ROW and five left. Columbus has 88 points, 41 ROW and six remaining. ROW is the first tiebreaker if two teams are tied. So, that could favor the Blue Jackets. However, the importance of their game against the Habs is huge.
Thursday will be a great sports day. Opening Day features the Yankees against the Orioles and the Mets against the Nationals featuring freshly extended Cy Young winner Jacob de Grom versus Max Scherzer. Plus the first part of the Sweet 16 games. I’ll be flipping back and forth between the college hoops and the two gigantic hockey games that will impact the race.
The Isles want to finish strong. At the moment, they’re considered third behind the Pens due to goal differential. Both teams have 95 points and 40 ROW with five games to go. Pittsburgh is plus-33 in differential while the Islanders are plus-24. Home ice for the Isles in a potential first round against the Sidney Crosby led Pens is essential. Without it, I don’t think they stand a chance.
They’re hard pressed to score goals as it is. Getting that extra home game with the first round being played at their real home arena in front of 13,917 screaming Islander fans at NYCB Live Nassau Coliseum would really help their chances.
BONY 3 STARS:
3rd 🌟 Matt Duchene, Blue Jackets (2 assists)
2nd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets (breakaway goal for 26th)
1st 🌟 Sergei Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets (26 save shutout for single season career high 8)