Islanders: “As Johnny Goes, We Go”

Desperate for a win of any kind, the New York Islanders grinded their way to an ugly 2-1 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames Monday night at the Barclays Center in “a game we had to win” according to OT hero Thomas Hickey.

Following a late third-period meltdown in a 4-2 loss in Los Angeles and allowing a stunning last-minute goal in Friday’s 3-2 defeat in San Jose to close out a California road trip, the last-place Islanders needed two points Monday, especially against a team closing out their own six-game road swing and playing for the second night in a row. With games against division rivals Pittsburgh and Washington later this week, it was even more imperative that the Islanders secured a win against the Flames.

Much of what has ailed the Isles all season reared its ugly head on Monday. Sloppy neutral zone play, not generating nearly enough quality scoring chances, an ineffective oh-for-four power play, and another blown third-period lead all came into play; but in the end Hickey scored his fifth overtime winner (out of 16 career goals, regular season and playoffs) and those much-needed two points were in hand.

There were some bright spots in the victory Monday night, though.

Go Johnny Go

Team captain John Tavares played with some spark to his game, as he and linemate Josh Bailey were clearly the two best Islanders’ forwards against Calgary. Tavares scored the game-opening goal off a simply gorgeous no-look pass from Bailey at 7:28 of the first period; and then it was his patience with the puck, not to mention terrific vision and execution on the pass to Hickey, which set up the game-winning goal.

Afterwards, head coach Jack Capuano summed up his team and its captain thusly:

“As Johnny goes, we go. It doesn’t surprise me some of the plays he makes…we definitely want the puck in his hands when the game is on the line.”

The thing is the 7-10-4 Islanders need more from their superstar captain. Capuano mentioned that Tavares is about more than just points on the ice, it’s how he leads the team and sets the right example. That is certainly important and admirable; but the way the Isles are going now the team needs its best player to carry it forward out on the ice.

Remarkably Monday’s two-point outing was only the second multiple-point effort from Tavares in a season that is already one-quarter complete. While he is nearly averaging a point per game (6-11-17 in 21 games) and not getting much offensive help from his ‘mates, Tavares needs to consistently find another gear and put forth some dominant performances if the Isles are going to rebound from their woeful start.

Perhaps skating against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on Wednesday in Brooklyn and Alex Ovechkin the next night in Washington will get the captain’s juices flowing. It better, because the Islanders are just 1-7-3 against Eastern Conference teams this season, and winless at 0-3-2 within the Metropolitan Division.

“We’ve got to start putting some wins together,” Tavares stated Monday night. “That has hurt us this year, not stringing wins together. It’s got to start now.”

Without dominant outings from Tavares, especially against the league’s elite, there will be no chance the Islanders will be stringing much-needed victories together.

As Johnny goes, we go.

No. 1 is Number One

Thomas Greiss, No. 1 in your scorecard, just might be taking over as the Isles’ number one goaltender.

Greiss has started three of the last four games, playing progressively better in each after watching Jaroslav Halak start the previous eight contests in goal. The 30 year-old, who starred in the playoffs last spring when Halak was injured, stopped 25 of 26 shots Monday, and was terrific in holding the 1-0 lead until early in the third period when Sean Monahan beat him with a one-timer.

In the sleepy first period Greiss faced only four shots, but made a clutch pad save to deny a Deryk Engelland breakaway. Then in the busier middle stanza he turned away Michael Ferland and Matt Stajan on break-ins, Mikael Backlund shorthanded, and a Sam Bennett point-blank put back.

It was curious, however, why Capuano chose not to praise Greiss more after the game. The better scoring chances belonged to Calgary and Greiss was a difference maker in the victory, yet Capuano said both goalies, referring to Calgary’s Brian Elliott, as well as Greiss, played well and it was largely a defensive game. While true on both accounts, if not for Hickey’s heroics, Greiss should have been the first star of the game.

Number one star, number one on his jersey, and quite possibly the number one goaltender.

“We’ll see what happens, it’s the coach’s decision, but it’s always nice to get a couple in a row because you feel better, get more used to the game pace and reading the puck, things like that,” the nonplussed Greiss told The Hockey Writers post game. “I just do my job the best I can. You always want to play well, doesn’t matter when or under what circumstances.”

Step Up, Man Down

Rookie defenseman Adam Pelech left the game with an upper body injury midway through the second period after being crushed into the boards by the Islanders’ bench on a hit from Ferland. That meant the remaining five Islanders’ defensemen had to step up and take on more ice-time and responsibility, which they did in impressive fashion.

Nick Leddy led the way, logging 26:02 worth of ice time, his fourth-highest this season. Johnny Boychuk played 22:27 and led the team with five shots on goal and ten attempted shots. Travis Hamonic also played more than 22 minutes and was solid throughout. Hickey played just under 20 minutes and netted the decisive goal.

The Islanders’ D corps is getting used to playing shorthanded this season. There have been games where either Hamonic, Ryan Pulock or Dennis Seidenberg could not finish and Capuano had to manipulate the five healthy remaining defenders.

“I think we play well with five D, but we’ve had to do it too much this year,” stated Hickey. “It (stinks) to see those guys get hurt, but we’ve been able to do the job.”

While Capuano was upbeat about Pelech’s injury situation after the game, the Islanders did receive some better news on the injury front Tuesday with Pulock reinstated from IR and loaned to Bridgeport of the American Hockey League to get back into game shape.