Isles Shutout Sabres, Inch Closer To Playoff Berth

The New York Islanders defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-0 on Saturday night for their second to last home game of the regular season at Nassau Coliseum. In honor of the fact that the Islanders will soon be leaving Nassau County for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the franchise dedicated this evening’s game to a few select players that have played major roles for this team over the past four decades.

Such players included Ed Westfall, Gary Howatt, Bobby Nystrom, Butch Goring, Ken Morrow, Pierre Turgeon, Steve Webb, Eric Cairns and Shawn Bates.

Each player was honored with a video tribute highlighting their contributions to the franchise during their respective decades.

“It’s been a lot of fun honoring a lot of guys this year,” John Tavares said after the game. “That’s added to it. We know the end of the regular season is near, and that means the end of the season here at the Coliseum and it will be the last time, so we certainly enjoy the atmosphere and the opportunity to go out and play in front of a full building in front of some great Islanders of the past. It’s been a lot of fun for us this year to be able to interact with them and talk with them with what our experiences are like today to back when they played.”

(On a personal note, I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the brief “Steve Webb!” chant that occurred when he set foot onto the ice, which originated during the 2002 playoff battle with the Toronto Maple Leafs).

The Islanders came out of the gate with a lot of energy, quickly taking a 6-0 shots advantage early in the first period. The Isles would be awarded a power play opportunity about six minutes into the game. It wouldn’t take long for them to cash in, as some quick puck movement led to Kyle Okposo’s 17th goal of the season. The assists went to John Tavares and Frans Nielsen.

The Isles would keep applying pressure throughout the period with the Sabres only getting chances in spurts. Towards the end of the opening frame, a few turnovers in the Isles’ end would lead to some key chances for the visiting team, but Jaroslav Halak came up big, prompting a few “Jaro” chants from the sold out crowd.

The Isles headed to their locker room during the first intermission with a 1-0 lead and a 13-8 shots advantage.

The second period started off similarly to the first period with the Islanders continuing to get chances on Sabres’ net-minder Andrey Makarov. He continued to make key saves throughout the middle frame to keep his team within one, especially on a close play that saw John Tavares seemingly create a play out of nothing and find Josh Bailey alone in front of the net.

The Isles’ would face a major obstacle towards the end of the second when Brian Strait took a double-minor high-sticking penalty with near 3:30 left in the period. However the Isles’ penalty kill, which has been exceptional the last several weeks, would continue their stellar play. In fact, the Isles did such a great job of killing the penalty that they even forced the Sabres to ice the puck despite having the man-advantage.

Neither team would score during the second period, forcing the Isles to head into the third period with only a one-goal lead.

The Islanders would end up killing off the remaining time on the double minor to start the third period and follow up the penalty kill with a few great chances of their own, forcing Makarov to make some key saves.

A gratuitous bounce at the 10:28 mark of the third period would end up giving the Islanders a 2-0 lead. The Isles fore-check continued to apply relentless pressure. The Sabres would eventually have an opportunity to clear the puck, but the pass from the Buffalo defenseman hit a broken stick and landed right on the tape of Brock Nelson who sent the puck through Makarov’s five-hole for his 20th goal of the season.

The Isles would increase their lead to three goals after Travis Hamonic had a play turn out not exactly as he had planned. He initially fanned on a shot at the top of the Sabres blue line but was fortunate enough to have his partner Lubomir Visnovsky pick up the puck. Lubo then sent the puck back to Hamonic who ripped a slap shot that was deflected by Nikolay Kulemin in front for his 14th goal of the year.

“I’m trying to get Lubo some points,” joked Hamonic after the game. “I figured I’d try to let him get a quick touch. It worked out good, I mean those things happen, Lubo was there, he made a good play back to me and Kuly was boxing out his guy and had his stick and made a great tip.”

The Isles continued to play a strong defensive game in the third period. Halak came up big when needed to maintain the shutout, and the Isles also killed off another penalty.

It was an important win, as the Isles have now reduced the magic number to clinch a playoff spot down to only two points.

"It’s important, you want to win as many games as possible and I feel like we’ve been doing a lot of good things as of late,” said Hamonic. “I mean the results maybe haven’t been the way that everybody wants but we’re not going to get down on ourselves, we’re going to stick with it. We’re a prideful group in here, we play for each other and I thought it was a great effort tonight. I mean their goalie played really well. I thought we controlled the play a lot. That’s a physical team over there. We took our fair share of hits but gave them as well. It was a good, grind win tonight.”

I asked Hamonic to reflect on what it meant to play in front of some great Islanders legends during a game that meant so much to them in regards to the standings and the playoff race.

“It’s been pretty neat, not just tonight but throughout the whole season. It seemed like every kind of ten games, or eight games we’ve been having one of the old legends coming back. For them, the respect that you have as a hockey player for those guys and the things that they’ve done on a personal level and as a team as well is pretty interesting and pretty neat. It’s a way for us to pay tribute to them and I’m sure they enjoy the time to get together with themselves but as a hockey player it’s just neat to see some older players and maybe see them in the hallway and pick their ear a little bit, but it’s great. Long Island, it seems like those guys are always around.”

Sadly, the Islanders will only be on Long Island for an undetermined short amount of time after game 82 of the regular season. I asked Hamonic to look ahead to that last home game, but despite him being aware that the crowd will be “pretty good,” he proved that his focus is in the right place.

“We got two more games before then. So Saturday morning you can ask me.”

-Rob McGowan

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