Islanders Defeat Panthers 5-2 In Final Home Game Of The Regular Season

When the horn sounded at the end of the third period at the Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday night, Islanders fans rejoiced as their home squad defeated the visiting Florida Panthers 5-2. The Isles skaters removed their jerseys and signed them for the lucky fans who won them as a prize at the end of the game.

Typically, this is a moment at the end of the Islanders season filled with "better luck next year's" and "thanks for supporting us as we rebuild our team." But instead, this time, fans were salivating for more as the Islanders continued to tighten their grasp on their first playoff berth in six years.

"Everyone's been telling me how loud this arena can be," said Matt Martin, who was this year's recipient of the Bob Nystrom award, "and usually we only hear it against the Rangers. But that was the best hockey game I've ever been a part of the other night, since I've been in the NHL.

And even again tonight, the crowd was awesome with the 'we want playoff' chants. Believe me, we want it as bad as they do."

The Islanders came storming out of the gates and created several scoring chances in front of Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Colin McDonald had a very close chance in front on his first shift, which was followed by several in tight chances for the Bailey-Nielsen-Okposo line.

But the Islanders would get on the board at the 8:01 mark of the first period after Matt Moulson redirected a shot off of Martin that was originally fed from Thomas Hickey along the wall.

A few minutes later, the Islanders would be granted an abundance of power play opportunities that would provide them an early lead. With Tyson Strachan in the box for a cross-checking minor, Erik Gudbranson would take a double-minor for high sticking, giving the Isles plenty of 5-on-3 time.

Mark Streit would bury a beautiful one-timer from Okposo and Nielsen to give the Isles a 2-0 lead. Just a few minutes later on the remaining double minor, Michael Grabner would accept a long pass at the Panthers blue line from Andrew MacDonald for a breakaway on Markstrom and bury his first goal of the night. Nabokov had the secondary assist.

The Panthers would cash in with a power play goal of their own before the end of the period when Dimitry Kulikov slammed home a blast from the point with a lot of traffic in front of Evgeni Nabokov, who made a total of 26 saves on the night.

But much like the first period, the Islanders would re-open the scoring right away. Radek Martinek would score his third goal of the year after Jesse Joensuu found him alone in the high slot coming in over the blue line. With Martin providing a screen in front, there was no way for Markstrom to stop the shot.

Fourteen seconds later, Grabner would score his second goal of the game after a Panthers skater turned over the puck right in front of Markstrom. With just a quick little backhand, the Islanders suddenly had a 5-1 lead.

Out went Markstrom and in came back-up Scott Clemmensen.

Despite earning a four-goal lead, the Islanders started to slowly get away from their game and gave the Panthers a variety of chances to score some goals. The Panthers would out-shoot the Islanders 8-6 in the period and received a goal from Marcel Goc after the Islanders were sloppy in their own end.

Although the Panthers managed to find some life despite the lopsided score, the visiting team was becoming noticeably furstrated and physical. Several collisions took place along the walls with a handful of retaliation plays as well. After a while, Isles forward Colin McDonald decided he had seen enough and flattened Strachan with a huge open ice hit to calm everything down.

"That's my job on the team," said McDonald after the game. "Just to try and create energy and play physical. I try and play clean. I know they weren't happy with the hit but you know, I guess it came at a good time, looking back. But I'm looking for a hit like that pretty much whenever I can. It's hard to get one clean like that, but I just try to create energy out there and change momentum of the game at times and that's kind of what happened there."

Nabokov would have a scary moment in the second period when Lubomir Visnvosky and Scottie Upshall crashed into him head on. Nabokov's helmet came off and he laid there in his crease for quite some time. During the post-game interviews, Nabokov stated that he never felt dizzy but did feel some soreness in his neck that concerned him. But he was in good spirits and said he felt fine after the game.

The third period did not see any scoring but did see the Islanders go perfect on their penalty kill on three separate occasions. Nabokov came up big when he had too and the Islanders secured the 5-2 win to put them one point behind the sixth placed Senators.

Although the Isles won by a three-goal margin, the coaching staff, as well as the players in the locker room, were unhappy with the way they played and know they have to be better when they hit the road and face the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

"We came out strong in the first ten minutes. We scored some timely goals which kind of took their game away and we got the two points. That's what matters but we got to definitely be on our game on Thursday," said Grabner.

Martin echoed what the coaching staff had to say as well.

"We'll get up tomorrow, re-evaluate, we know we got to be better, especially against Toronto. We can still catch them in the standings."

Overall, the fact that the Islanders can look at a win that had a three-goal differential this late in the season and still be unsatisfied displays that they are turning a corner as a team.

For the first time in years, Islanders fans were leaving the Coliseum with the feeling that they will be back in a few weeks for playoff hockey and not for a prospect's game in June.

But it's not just the fans who demand more, it's the players. The maturity level has grown with the better play and the better position in the standings.

"We're growing up a lot as a team," added Martin. "Not too many guys were overly happy in here when we came in over the second intermission and even after the game. We talked about it. We understand that we got to be way better to make any run in the playoffs. That's not going to be good enough. We're not going to beat some of the better teams in the league if we play like that."

They will have an opportunity to prove that they can do better on Thursday night.

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News and notes: Josh Bailey was not on the ice when they gave his jersey away to a fan and was seen limping on the runway into the Islanders locker room. Jack Capuano did not have any news to add about the potential injury.

Casey Cizikas left the game in the first period with an upper body injury but did return to the ice to give his jersey to a fan.

The New York Islanders were officially scheduled to play an outdoor game next season against the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium on January 29th. It is one of six outdoor games that will be played, including the Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings.

-Rob McGowan
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