UNIONDALE, NY — In April 2007, an Islanders matchup with the Atlanta Thrashers might have been a possible playoff preview. Just 18 months later, the only thing both clubs could look forward to is the chance to avoid last place in the Eastern Conference.
Things were looking up for the Isles, which carried a two-goal lead into the final period Nov. 26 against Pittsburgh before surrendering four goals in the final period in a game that would have moved the club to 500.
But the Islanders have been reeling since that fateful period, dropping a 5-1 decision to the Thrashers Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum.
Atlanta entered the contest with the NHL’s fewest points but looked like a division winner against the Isles, who are now only two points above Tampa Bay for last place in the league following the Lightning’s loss. Coach Scott Gordon has seen his aggressive forechecking system stall and his defense continue to suffer breakdowns in losing four the fourth time in five games.
Ilya Kovalchuk and Eric Boulton scored just 4:19 apart to break a 1-all tie in the second. The Islanders fell to 10-14-2 and just 5-8-1 at home.
“There were some breakdown on the goals, but there were a lot of breakdowns on their part and we didn’t capitalize,” said Gordon, who said he was pleased with his team’s effort despite losing the last two games by a combined score of 10-3.
The Thrashers didn’t pepper Joey MacDonald with shots but converted on quality scoring chances in scoring three goals on its first 12 shots. Bill Guerin put the Islanders ahead just 51 seconds into the contest, netting his 10th goal of the season.
MacDonald made his 16th consecutive start and stopped just 12 of 17 shots overall. The netminder said fatigue wasn’t a factor and also said he will be ready for the impending four-game road trip.
“Things weren’t going our way,” MacDonald said. “We were battling well in the second period and had some chances. Hedberg made the saves and I didn’t. That was the difference.
“I felt great coming into tonight. I had lots of energy. It was just one of those nights when you try to work harder, the worse it gets.”
Added Gordon: “I don’t think we have to point the finger at him.”
Bryan Little scored with 2:16 remaining in the first, tallying his 11th goal. Mike Sillinger was too slow to cover Little, who took Garnet Exelby’s centering pass for a tap-in goal just inches outside the crease at the left post to tie it at 1.
Jon Sim had the Islanders best chance to retake the lead when his puck hit off Thrashers netminder Johan Hedberg and past the goal line, though the net was
knocked loose moments before the shot to wipe out the goal nearly seven minutes into the second.
Kovalchuk gave the Thrashers the lead at the 10:04 mark, completing a give-and-go with Marty Reasoner for the 2-1 edge. Andy Sutton committed a defensive zone miscue, fumbling the puck with his glove.
Kovalchuk collected the puck and passed it to Reasoner in front of the blue line, who returned the favor by hitting Kovalchuk with a deft pass beyond Sutton’s reach, allowing the Russian All-Star forward to complete the play by sending a shot over MacDonald’s left shoulder.
“He came in with a lot of speed,” MacDonald said. “He’s got some pretty good hands and can do whatever he wants with the puck. I could have come out a little further but once you do that, he can go around you, too.”
Moments later, the Thrashers padded the lead when Joey Crabb’s left circle shot attempt hit a backpedaling Brendan Witt and bounced right to a trailing Boulton, who promptly fired a wrist shot that beat MacDonald glove side. Eric Perrin logged the insurance marker, scoring Atlanta’s only power play goal in seven chances 7:19 into the final period.
“It was a bang-bang play,” MacDonald said. “It went right off Witt’s skate and it was just an ugly goal.”
The Islanders couldn’t muster any luck. Mark Streit and Blake Comeau drilled the post with shots just 18 seconds apart only to have the puck bounce out. Almost 10 seconds later, Chris Thorburn scored off Kovalchuk’s one-time feed going the other way, capping the scoring.
Despite Gordon’s optimism, Sutton provided the reality of the situation, where playing a system well does not automatically mean two points.
“Unfortunately, the team with the most goals in the ends wins,” Sutton said.
The lone bright spot for the Islanders was Comeau, who appeared in his first NHL game since April 4 and logged 11:04 of ice time. The Islanders sent down the struggling Jeff Tambellini before the contest to open the roster spot as the club swapped one struggling young player for another.
Comeau played wing on a line centered by Sillinger and flanked by Richard Park. The 22-year old finished with three shots on goal in 15 shifts that included a brief stint on the power play. He was also credited with three hits.
“A big part of my game is being physical,” Comeau said. “I can’t take anything for granted. I have to play physical every night and earn my spot in the lineup every night.”