Another Flawless Islander Weekend

Another weekend, another joyous Monday.  Such is the life of a New York Islander fan now.

The Islanders entered play Friday night 21-10-0, about to play the Red Wings in Detroit, the first of back to back games.  The weekend would be completed Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Going into Friday night the teams were a combined 37-17-11, both firmly entrenched in a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.  Surely most Islander fans were a little nervous and would have signed up for a split of the pair in a heartbeat. 

So what happened?

Oh, just a couple or regulation wins, 2-1 versus Detroit and 3-1 against Tampa Bay as the Islanders improved to 23-10-0.  Ho-hum.

The weekend marked the return of Johnny Boychuk and Travis Hamonic to the defense as both came back from injuries.  The team had stayed afloat, going 4-3-0 without the two, but two of those losses were particularly difficult to swallow as they blew big leads against St. Louis and Minnesota.  Would the Islanders have won those two games with a healthy defense?  Nothing is definite, but let’s just say the chances of them blowing three-goal leads in consecutive games would have been greatly diminished.

Back to this past weekend though.  Both games followed a similar formula: the opposition had the better of play early on before the Islanders found their legs; both opponents would score first; and both times the Islanders would storm back for the victory.  The Islanders suffocated them defensively, handily outshooting the Red Wings and Lightning by a combined 80-39.  Jaroslav Halak, playing both nights, barely had to break a sweat to improve his record to 18-6-0 on the season.

Check that out again: in two games against two top squads from the East, the Islanders not only won, but completely dominated and imposed their will on the opposition.  How often were Islander fans able to say that in previous years?

The other constant from both games?  The “Kid” Line coming up big and growing up in front of our eyes.  Against Detroit, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee both picked up a goal and an assist, the latter the game winner in the second period after a scrum in front of the net.  While Ryan Strome didn’t collect any points, his vision and play-making ability continue to impress and with two big bodies flanking him, should pick up points with regularity soon enough.

As impressive as the win at Detroit was Friday night (and anytime you can pick up a win at Joe Louis Arena, it’s impressive), Saturday night was another level above that. 

The Lightning were without starter Ben Bishop, so they instead turned to uber-prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy in net.  And man, did he not disappoint.  For just about 57 minutes anyway.

The teams played scoreless hockey through 40 minutes, but not for lack of opportunities.  The Islanders held a 29-9 shots advantage through two periods and at times it felt like the rink was tilted in the Islanders’ favor.  They were able to create numerous chances, but Vasilevskiy stood on his head to keep the game tied, his most impressive save coming on Brock Nelson at the tail-end of a power play opportunity in the first period where he sprawled across to stone Nelson who seemingly had a wide-open net. 

Despite their efforts, Tampa took the lead nearly halfway through the third period on a nifty deflection from Brett Connolly.  After doing everything right but score, the game had the feeling of just one of those nights that no matter what you did, you couldn’t buy a goal.  The sell-out crowd, which this season has been amazing with energy, sat in a weird kind of stunned nervousness as the clock ticked down.  If there ever was a time where you needed your big-time players to make a big-time play, it was now.

Hello number 91.

The top line of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Josh Bailey played one of its better shifts in weeks with just a little over three minutes to go in the game.  Despite the buzzing, the Islanders still could not get one past the rookie keeper.  However, after a nice takeaway, Okposo hit a cutting Tavares moving towards the net and the captain buried it for his 13th goal of the season.  After weeks of struggling which no doubt was weighing on him, you could see the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders as he remained on his knees, waiting to be mobbed by his teammates.  The superstar made a superstar play late in the game.  Just what we expect him to do.

Before the fans could finish celebrating the goal, Travis Hamonic flung a wrist shot towards the net that was deflected by Anders Lee and hit twine just 12 seconds later.  Bedlam at the Coliseum.  It was one of those times where if you knew how things would play out, you’d pay just about any price to be in the arena.  Instead wildly fist-pumping in the living room had to suffice.  The atmosphere different, the excitement the same.

Nikolai Kulemin would go on to add an empty-netter with a little over a minute left to play, and after nearly 57 minutes of frustration, the Islanders buried the Lightning in a little less than two minutes of play. 

It was the kind of weekend where if there were any doubters about this Islander club, they should be gone now.  And if they still persist?  Well, you probably shouldn’t be talking to that person anyway.  This team has shown players and fans across the league that they will be heard from this year, and if anyone plans on knocking them off, they better bring their “A” game. 

Oh what a joyous Monday it was.

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and be sure to follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.