UNIONDALE, NY- There is no telling if the Islanders matinee performance against the Devils Saturday was a harbinger of a promising future or merely a welcome respite to a frustrating season.
But for one afternoon at least, the core of the Isles youth movement was able to combine effort and skill to outwork a veteran team. Sean Bergenheim’s empty-net goal with .7 seconds left gave him his first career hat trick and 13 different Islanders logged at least one point in a 7-3 win over New Jersey.
“I don’t know what I’m doing differently right now. I just play,” said Bergenheim, who added goals 12, 13 and 14 of the season.
Despite shooting at an empty net, the former first-round pick still produced a highlight-reel play when he shrugged off fierce pressure from Brendan Shanahan and fired a far-angle shot near the goal line along the bench-side boards. Bergenheim’s near 90-degree shot found the twine, prompting some fans to pelt the ice with hats as the Finnish forward became the first Islander to score a hat trick since Bill Guerin in October 2007.
“I kind of made it a little bit tight there, but I’m happy it was one second before and not one second late,” Bergenheim said. “The [chip-in] went pretty far, and I couldn’t backhand it or anything. I needed to pull it to get a better angle and there wasn’t much time, so I knew I had to shoot it.
“Sometimes when you do something on the ice, you’re in the zone. You don’t think too much. You just do it. I didn’t have time to think.”
Coach Scott Gordon saw his club score seven goals for the first time since a 2006 victory over the Rangers. Kyle Okposo, Jeff Tambellini, Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau and Frans Nielsen-fellow members of the under-25 club- all contributed to goals in front of a crowd of 15,524 at Nassau Coliseum.
Yet before they could even celebrate, team officials announced Trent Hunter suffered a season-ending ankle injury trying to check Bobby Holik in the first period.
Hunter played 4:46 in the first period before fracturing his left ankle. It was another blow to the Islanders depth considering the team already is without injured veterans Mike Sillinger, Doug Weight, Richard Park, Andy Sutton and Brendan Witt is still serving his five-game suspension.
“I went to hit Holik and kind of got twisted up,” Hunter said. “I was just coming off a bruise on it. There was some swelling in there, but it’s a different injury. There’s not much you can do.”
Joey MacDonald outdid his counterpart, making 35 saves as the Isles won for the third time in four games. Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur struggled, allowing three first-period goals and six goals on 20 shots in 40 minutes.
“Our guys came out and set the tone of the game,” Gordon said.
Brian Gionta scored 23 seconds into the second period to make it 3-1 and add some intrigue. Bergenheim responded 61 seconds later, adding his first goal to re-establish the three-goal edge.
“The effort that’s being put out by our team is something that’s been a constant for us [lately] and we’re getting some wins because of it,” Okposo said. “Everybody who’s come up has really fit in nicely.”
The Islanders employed a roster featuring eight players who have spent time in AHL Bridgeport. The mini Sound Tigers jumped on the Atlantic Division-leading Devils. Bergenheim scored twice, Tambellini assisted on Radek Martinek’s opening goal just 1:42 into the contest and Bailey added two assists. Minor league call-up Mike Iggulden also added two assists in his Isles debut.
“That was something pretty special,” Iggulden said. “I didn’t expect anything. I just wanted to work as hard as I could. To get a couple of assists was something really special for me.”
It was hard to discern which team was playing for the top playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and which is in contention for the No. 1 overall draft pick. The Isles surged to a 3-0 lead just 14:05 into the contest, punctuated by Jeff Tambellini’s breakaway goal.
Tambellini, who entered Monday’s game with just six points in 44 games, tallied his second multi-point game in the past three contests.
He started the season the NHL roster before being demoted to Bridgeport in order to find his game after the winger tallied two assists in his first 23 games. After picking up a goal and an assist in a win over Colorado Monday, Tambellini was credited as the second assist.
He also allowed the home team to enter the first intermission up three when he subtly skated behind defensemen Paul White and Bryce Salvador at the blue line. Mark Streit then lifted a perfect outlet pass from inside the Islanders defense zone that went right to Tambellini’s stick, initiating the breakaway. Tambellini finished the one-on-one by sliding a backhand under Brodeur’s pads as the crowd erupted for his fourth goal of the season.
“If anybody expects me to come out and every game and shut down everybody; thanks for the confidence but it’s not something that’s going to happen,” Brodeur said. “I felt pretty good; I felt I was where I needed to be. The puck didn’t hit me. You have to give them credit. They got pucks on net and shots really close and made some good plays.”
Iggulden, who appeared in one NHL game as a San Jose Shark against the Islanders last season, made a big contribution in 12:37 of ice time. He assisted on two of Bergenheim’s goals, including an even strength tally that made it 6-2 with 2:40 left in the second. That goal effectively chased Brodeur when Kevin Weekes came out to start the third period.
“This year, the first half of the season, it was tough because I didn’t play close to the level where I knew could play,” Bergenheim said. “By saying that, I have to keep on playing this way and keep getting better.”