Hockey

NY ISLANDERS: Return of Fans Sparks Islanders in 5-3 Victory Thursday Night at Nassau Coliseum over Devils By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com

“Let’s Go Islanders! Let’s Go Islanders!…YES! YES! YES!”

It’s been 369 days since the Islanders last heard the Nassau faithful screaming these two chants; live and in-person. And that was March 7, 2020, in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Three nights later, on March 10, 2020, in Vancouver, the Islanders fell to the Canucks 5-4 in a shootout. The next day, March 11, 2020, was the last of the NHL’s 2019-20 regular season. Hockey — and essentially all sports — was put into an indefinite hiatus as fear gripped the world. 

While the NHL did return over the summer, in a bubble format for its playoffs and has so far managed to play somewhat normally this season — albeit with restricted fan capacity, or no fans at all, depending on the local governments — Thursday’s game at Nassau Coliseum — on March 11, 2021 — in which the Islanders hosted the Devils, represented another step in the return to normal life as 1,000 Northwell Health Employees were in attendance to witness their Islanders beat New Jersey 5-3.

But the end result of the game wasn’t nearly as important as it was for there to once more be live fans in attendance at Nassau Coliseum. For the second time in their history, the Boys from Long Island are saying, “Good-bye,” to The Old Barn. And this time, it’s for good as the team will move into its shiny new home — UBS Arena — at the start of next season. 

While the Islanders are having what could end up being a season to remember on the ice, one thing has been missing off the ice; and that’s the presence of one of the most passionate fan bases in the entire NHL. It is near impossible to envision a situation in which The Coliseum will get a proper send-off; one fit for a King, with a sold-out, packed-house filled to the brim with fans. 

However, the 1,000 Northwell Health employees — while small in actual number and sound — certainly sounded like 20,000 to the players, coaches and media alike, who were in attendance for this return to semi-normalcy. 

Prior to the game, Mathew Barzal shared his thoughts on having the 1,000 Northwell Health employees in attendance: “The last year they’ve just been grinding this pandemic and making sure everyone was safe. It’s exciting for us. We’re pretty excited to have them be the first ones tonight.”

And before the game could get underway, the Islanders saluted and honored the Northwell Healthcare workers in attendance in a stirring tribute that made everybody in attendance and watching at home more than a little misty-eyed. It has been a difficult 12-months for all and the impact these and all Healthcare workers have had on their communities should not be understated. We often celebrate athletes for incredible feats, but it is the Healthcare workers who deserve every bit of recognition possible and they got some from the Islanders.

As for the game, the Boys from Long Island started hot and never let up.

Some early pressure from the Isles put New Jersey and MacKenzie Blackwood on their heels and it wasn’t long before the Nassaumen capitalized.

Just 3:15 into the game, the Isles’ “Identity Line” of Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck wreaked havoc in the Devils’ zone and cumulated in Matt Martin firing a shot on goal from the point, through traffic and past Blackwood for the early 1-0 Islanders lead. Clutterbuck may have tipped it in front, but the main point is this: a goal is a goal.

The “crowd” of 1,000 Healthcare workers was so appreciative of the goal and it was such a sense of joy for all that they broke out the Isles’ “YES!” chant in celebration. (Let’s be honest, we knew they would.)

The Nassaumen never once thought of letting up and just 6:39 after Martin’s goal, Adam Pelech joined the goal-scoring party. 

A strong cycle and forecheck by the Islanders led to Pelech receiving the puck just inside the blue-line and as he fired a wrist-shot towards the net Dmitry Kulikov got tangled up with his own netminder and caused Blackwood to fall over, allowing the puck to go into the Devils’ goal for the 2-0 Isles lead. (Kulikov is going to owe Blackwood a fancy dinner for that one).

Unfortunately it wasn’t all fun for the Boys from Long Island as Captain Anders Lee was hurt moments later in an innocent collision with Pavel Zacha. Zacha and Lee got tangled up and they hit the ice hard, with Lee’s right knee bending the wrong way. The Isles’ Captain attempted to crawl over to the officials to get a stoppage, but couldn’t. Eventually, the refs saw his plea and got him some medical attention. Lee was helped off the ice and immediately went to the Islanders’ room and did not return.

During the first intermission, Pelech told MSG Network’s, Shannon Hogan, “It’s tough to watch. Any player on your team down like that, especially your captain, we are holding our breath right now.”

Then came the second period and Lee still wasn’t back on the Isles’ bench (he missed the rest of the game).

But fear not Islanders fans, for Lee’s teammates picked up the slack for their injured leader.

Early in the middle period, Josh Bailey had a Grade-A scoring chance and was absolutely robbed by Blackwood on what looked like it would be a no-doubt goal. Well, no doubt in everybody’s minds except Blackwood’s.

That was just the first of many stops Blackwood made during the period as the Boys from Long Island peppered him with 17-total shots in the frame — many of which were quality chances for the home team. And on the flipside, the Devils only registered five-shots on goal during the period — with hardly any being categorized as dangerous. 

Of the Isles’ 17-shots, two beat New Jersey’s netminder and those two goals came just moments apart at the 14:05 and 17:13 marks of the period.

First came a hairy situation that began with Oliver Wahlstrom exerting his will over the Devils’ skaters. Wahlstrom dipped, danced, dangled and dekked but couldn’t score. And then he was pushed into Blackwood by Sami Vatanen, causing both the goalie and the winger to crash onto the ice. While they attempted to get back up the puck was accidentally poked into the net by New Jersey’s own Damon Severson for the 3-0 Islanders lead. And the goal was credited to Isles’ rookie defenseman, Noah Dobson. 

Devils’ Head Coach Lindy Ruff challenged the call claiming goalie interference, but lost the call, resulting in an Islanders’ power-play. Referee Wes McCauley emphatically explained the decision by correctly explaining that Vatanen caused the perceived interference. And McCauley delivered the decision as only he could.

Next came Josh Bailey’s goal. Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas combined to strip Severson of the puck along the boards deep in the Devils’ zone. Cizikas carried the puck along the goal-line until he found a streaking Bailey charging towards the net. Cizikas hit Bailey in stride and Bailey easily tapped it past Blackwood for the commanding 4-0 lead.

So, the teams entered the third period with the Isles leading 4-0 and that’s when things got interesting.

Some sloppy play by the Nassaumen led to Janne Kuokkanen chipping a puck over Ilya Sorokin, who had hardly been tested through two periods. Kuokkanen’s goal got New Jersey on the board 3:23 into the third period and cut the Isles’ lead to 4-1.

40-seconds later, Mikhail Maltsev put a backhander on goal and the pucked darted past Sorokin to put a scare into the Islanders. It was now 4-2 just 4:03 into the third period. 

Sensing his team needed a breather, Head Coach Barry Trotz called a timeout to “talk” to his players. 

The timeout and whatever Trotz said obviously worked because 41-seconds after Maltsev’s goal, Brock Nelson continued to have the hot-hand as a goal-scorer when he parked himself in front of Blackwood and easily tapped in Ryan Pulock’s pass to restore the Isles’ three-goal lead — 5-2. Nelson was untouched and uncovered on the goal, but all goals count the same, even if they’re not created the same.

The next 10-minutes or so were plagued by penalties and sloppiness, however the score remained unchanged. With just 4:08 to go, Jack Hughes made a nifty move to score and bring the Devils within 5-3, but the game was essentially over at that point. And a few minutes later, it officially was.

It was an uncharacteristic third period for the Islanders, but a win is a win and the Isles will take it; especially in front of their own fans for the first time in over a calendar year. Overall, it was a nice salute to the Healthcare workers and it extended the Isles’ hot-streak to seven-straight games.

Ryan Pulock did his best to explain his team’s third period performance by saying: “Even in the third when they were able to get a couple, we didn’t roll over. Every night it is someone else.”

See you Saturday at Prudential Center in New Jersey. And let’s hope whatever the news ends up being with Anders Lee, that it’s nothing major. 

GAME NOTES:

The Isles went 0-for-5 on the power-play to bring their season tally to 15-for-66. And Trotz was not happy with his team’s 0-for-5 performance: “We weren’t a threat tonight, we tried to slow it down.”…The Isles remain the only team in the NHL to not suffer a regulation loss to home (12-0-2 on the season at Nassau Coliseum)…The Islanders have won seven-straight overall and are riding a 10-game points streak…Brock Nelson’s third period goal extended his goal-scoring streak to four-games and his points-streak to five-games…J.G. Pageau, who received an assist on Noah Dobson’s marker, extended his own assist-streak to four-games…With the win, Head Coach Barry Trotz and GM Lou Lamoriello secured their 100th win with the Islanders…Ilya Sorokin won his fifth straight start. After the game, Trotz said the following about Sorokin’s play: “Ilya’s (Sorokin) fine, he made a couple good saves. I’m not worried about him, he’s a good young pro.”...All six Isles defensemen registered at least one point.

NEXT GAME:

Saturday March 13th Islanders at Devils at Prudential Center at 7pm(EST).

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