Can you believe it?! It’s March and the NHL season is not even two-months old. And yet…the Islanders have already completed nearly 40% of their schedule. (39.29% to be precise). So, it’s time to start thinking about potential playoff seeding. And while there’s still so much we don’t know about how this year’s playoffs will unfold, we do know it never hurts to be in first place.
On Tuesday night at Prudential Center, the Islanders entered the game just two points behind the Washington Capitals for first place — although the Capitals do have one game in hand — in the remodeled Eastern Division — excuse me, the MassMutual Division — and they skated out of the arena with exactly what they came in looking for thanks to their 2-1 victory over the Devils. Their goal-scorers were none other than rookie sensation Oliver Wahlstrom and Captain Anders Lee.
With all that in mind, the Isles and Devils opened the first period with a couple of good chances before settling into the type of game one would have watched the home team play back in the mid-90s. What is the common denominator? Well, that would be Lou Lamoriello.
Lamoriello built the Devils into a championship caliber team back then and he is doing the same with the Islanders now; using many of the same principles — namely an emphasis on strong team defense.
As any hockey person will tell you, you need to build your team from the goal out. That being said, the Nassaumen have Semyon Varlamov in net most games (including in this one against the Devils). Then comes the blue-line. Noah Dobson, Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Andy Greene have been particularly good this year and were against the Devils.
And then comes the forwards. With Mathew Barzal, J.G. Pageau, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Oliver Wahlstrom making up the core of the Isles’ attack this unit gets a check mark as well.
However, against the Devils, in the first period, the forwards didn’t exactly get the engine going; cobbling together just eight shots on goal — the Boys from Long Island did hold New Jersey to four though. On the flipside, the Isles won just three of 17 face-offs in the period, which was concerning; especially when you consider the Devils entered the game last in the NHL in face-off winning percentage.
Of their eight shots on goal, the one that rang loudest was Pulock’s blast from the top of the right face-off circle that rocketed off the crossbar to the point where fans and media alike were saying (jokingly of course) that it would likely need medical attention after taking Pulock’s shot head on.
There was also a late period power-play opportunity for the Isles thanks to Dmitry Kulikov high-sticking J.G. Pageau with 17:17 gone in the first period. In the month of February the Islanders had the NHL’s best power-play. Too bad the calendar now read March instead of February. The Boys from Long Island didn’t generate much on the power-play and failed to convert before heading to the first intermission with the score still 0-0.
Then came the second period and the teams did a 180-degree turnaround as they came out flying during the first couple of shifts; until the penalty bug bit and it bit the Islanders hard.
In the first 10-minutes of the middle period the Nassaumen were thrice sent to the box for penalties. First came Ryan Pulock for tripping. Then came Cal Clutterbuck for slashing; with Pulock still in the box for another 25-seconds. And finally came a tripping penalty assessed to Varlamov which was served by Beauvillier.
The good news was the Boys from Long Island successfully killed off all three Devils power-plays. The bad news? The offense was hardly ever on the ice and by the time they finally got out there, they were so disjointed they could hardly muster a shot on goal.
Nick Leddy summed it up thusly: “They [the PK] have been great all year. I try and do my best when I get in, but they’ve been a huge staple for us all year and it creates momentum for us and takes a little bit of momentum away from the power play… They’ve been outstanding.”
In fact, throughout the second period, the Garden Staters outshot their Long Island visitors 16-5. But none of those shots beat Varlamov or his Devils counterpart, Aaron Dell. So, to the third period the game went, with both teams still tied 0-0.
And that’s when things finally began to look up for the Isles.
Just 1:10 into the final period of regulation, rookie Oliver Wahlstrom, being the puck wizard he is, gave the Islanders a lead they would not relinquish.
Nick Leddy passed the puck to Pageau in the Isles’ zone before Pageau sent the puck over to Wahlstrom. The rookie sped through the neutral zone and entered the Devils’ zone with a full head of steam. Flying down the slot, Wahlstrom used his “special release” to shoot the puck between Kulikov’s legs and over Dell’s blocker — just under the bar — for the 1-0 Islanders lead.
After the game, Wahlstrom commented on how things have changed for him as he continues to adjust to life in the NHL. “I’m kind of falling in love with the details of my game, the little details. I feel like that’s helping. It’s bringing me more enjoyment to the game and I’m thinking less about production and everything. I’m just focusing on the little details.”
The goal gave the Isles some jump and just 6:41 later, Captain Anders Lee showed off his tenacious, or rather persistent side by cashing in on a second chance rebound to double the Nassaumen’s lead to 2-0.
Mathew Barzal cycled the puck to Andy Greene, who was stationed up high on the left side. Greene fired the puck off the back wall and it caromed to Lee, who was parked to the right of Dell. Lee’s first shot was blocked by Dell’s pad and the second chance shot squeaked through for the Islanders’ Captain.
From there the Isles tried to clampdown and hold the Devils off the board with Varlamov looking for yet another shutout. If he could get it, it would be the team’s second straight shutout and their sixth overall on the season.
With 3:57 to go, Devils’ Head Coach Lindy Ruff pulled Dell for the extra attacker. Barzal sent a long shot down the ice in an attempt at an empty-net goal, but it went off the post for an icing. Several more Isles skaters tried for the empty-net only to come up empty themselves as the clock continued to wind down.
The score was still 2-0 in favor of the Islanders when Miles Wood scored from point-blank range with 12.2 seconds to go to ruin Varlamov’s shutout bid. That made it 2-1 Islanders and that’s how the game came to an end.
It wasn’t the Isles best or prettiest game of the year, but when the team needed to dig down deep it managed to find exactly what it needed and skated out of Prudential center with a share of first-place in the Eastern — MassMutual — Division.
After the game, Head Coach Barry Trotz said it best: “I think we had a lot of poise… I thought we managed the game. We didn’t get to our game all game, but we managed it pretty well.”
The Isles went 0-for-1 on the power-play to go to 14-for-54 on the season…Oliver Wahlstrom’s third period goal extended his points streak to five-straight games…J.G. Pageau’s assist on Wahlstrom’s goal was the 100th helper of his NHL career…The Isles went 4-for-4 on the penalty-kill.
Thursday March 4th Islanders vs. Sabres at Nassau Coliseum at 7pm(EST).