If ever there was an example of how much the 2016-17 New York Islanders teeter on the edge, then Wednesday night’s 5-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Barclays Center was it.
New York scored first for only the eighth time in 22 games this season, then raced out to a 3-0 second-period lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions, and carried that three-goal bulge into the final 20 minutes of play.
The Islanders, though, only needed 13 of those 20 minutes to let that entire lead slip away with sloppy defensive-zone play and indifferent man-coverage low-lighting their collective collapse. Yet to their credit the Islanders regrouped, showed renewed determination and resiliency, and found a way to snap the 3-3 deadlock on an Anders Lee deflection with 26.6 ticks remaining in regulation.
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) December 1, 2016
For a team that has faltered late in games and let many a third-period lead or tie dissipate into defeat, Wednesday’s escape act was not only a major sigh of relief, but a welcome change to what has become the norm this season.
“What was I thinking when that puck went in the net?,” defenseman Johnny Boychuk asked in repeating a question from The Hockey Writers. “It’s such a relief. That’s what I was thinking. We’ve had games where we were winning late and we miss an assignment or something, other team ties it up, and we’re in overtime. So it’s nice to see that it goes our way finally.”
Accentuate the Positive
Had the Islanders added to their lead in the third, or even traded goals with Pittsburgh, never relinquishing their advantage, Wednesday night’s game might just be considered their best 60-minute effort of the season.
They took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission on Boychuk’s right-wing laser at 19:46 after having just killed off a late Penguins power play. They would finish a perfect three-for-three on the penalty kill Wednesday against Pittsburgh’s star-studded power play.
Jason Chimera went to the net and had the puck deflect off him and into the cage 2:10 into the second and Casey Cizikas made it 3-0 at 17:21 by roofing one in tight after the puck pinballed off one stick and on to his.
With goaltender Thomas Greiss, starting for the fourth time in the last five games, making all the stops he needed to make and his teammates playing engaged, physical, and with pace in all three zones, the Islanders pieced together 40 of their most complete minutes of hockey this season, doing so against an elite opponent.
After allowing Pittsburgh to tie things up, the Islanders maintained their poise. In fact after the game head coach Jack Capuano pointed out that he did not feel the need to use his timeout after Evgeni Malkin’s tying goal at 13:08 of the third because he did not sense any panic in his group.
Instead of laying back the Islanders pressed forward, playing with confidence, a good sign for a last-place team too often used to blowing third-period leads. Then Lee’s goal from in front, followed by an empty netter.
A 5-3 victory, and consecutive wins for only the second time this season. More than three goals scored for the first time in nine games and for only the fourth time all season. Their first victory against a Metropolitan Division opponent this year (1-3-2).
Capuano made sure to accentuate those positives and not stress the near complete third-period meltdown afterwards. He was thrilled, for instance, how the Islanders “got to the paint..and dirty areas”. Indeed, New York scored three of its goals from in front, those from Chimera and Cizikas, and the game-winner by Lee.
“We needed this, we absolutely did,” stated Boychuk. “We needed it for our confidence. Those are the Stanley Cup champions over there and we outplayed them for over 45 minutes. So they got the better of us for a bit, that’s the type of team they are, but we just keep battling there. We knew we couldn’t fold there. If we did, we’d lose the game and we couldn’t afford that.”
One Foot off the Cliff
Of course letting a three-goal lead in the final period vanish, and nearly losing two must-needed points in the standings in the process, can not be overlooked either. Nor can it be overlooked how that lead was lost.
Travis Hamonic, who was on for all three Penguins goals and finished minus-three on the night, allowed Sidney Crosby to beat him down the ice to a loose puck and did not wedge him off effectively. That allowed Crosby to make a slick pass in front. Pass, shot, save, rebound, Conor Sheary goal.
Then Chimera just let Justin Schultz waltz right past him on the left-wing before Schultz made it 3-2 at 10:40 of the third with a wicked snap finish.
Finally, Thomas Hickey floats back into the play, leaves Malkin unguarded on the tying tap-in goal, while two other Islanders expose the front of the net by chasing Pens defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who made the pass to the wide-open Malkin.
Yuck. Yuck. And yuck.
Of course the Islanders would not have been in this situation had they scored during a second-period five-on-three power play which lasted nearly a full two minutes. Granted, John Tavares was flat-out robbed by Matt Murray on their best scoring chance; but far too many Islanders shots were blocked or sailed wide of the net during the two-man advantage.
The Isles are now a woeful 3-for-40 on the power play at Barclays Center this season after last night’s oh-for-four effort. For a team teetering on the brink day-to-day, game to game, and period to period, that needs to change immediately if New York is going to put together a run here and escape the cellar.
Yet despite these glaring issues, the Islanders found a way to win again, not dissimilar to how they gutted out a 2-1 overtime victory Monday over the Calgary Flames after also blowing a third-period lead.
“It’s huge,” Lee said post game. “We’ve faced enough adversity for a whole season already, I think. It’s been frustrating, a tough start. We’ve dug ourselves a hole, but we dug ourselves out of one (Wednesday) night. That’s a good sign.”
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.