UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Good teams often find ways to win as much as bad teams find ways to lose. Even when bad teams play better.
That was the case on Tuesday night at the Nassau Coliseum, as the first-place New York Islanders squandered a one-goal lead and were slightly outplayed by the worst team in the NHL’s Western Conference’s, yet still found a way to defeat the Edmonton Oilers, 3-2, on a goal by center Casey Cizikas with 4:37 left.
The clutch score gave New York (35-18-1) a Metropolitan Division-leading 71 points, three ahead of second-place Pittsburgh and saved the Islanders some further trouble in trying to get past the pesky Oilers (15-31-9), who remained at a Western Conference-worst 39 points one night after posting just their sixth road win of the season in New Jersey.
Although New York started the game mostly in Edmonton’s zone over the first eight minutes and took six of the first seven shots, the Oilers attempted 35 of the game’s final 57 shots, to finish with a 36-28 advantage in that category, including a sizable 15-5 edge in the final period.
Despite entering the night as the league’s third-least efficient team on the power play (just 21-for-157; 13.4 percent) Edmonton took advantage of the NHL’s worst penalty-killing team (39 goals allowed in 146 chances, for a 73.3 percent success rate, coming into the game) and went 2-for-3 on man-advantages, with the help of a lucky bounce and a questionable call.
And although the Oilers were playing their third game in four nights, during a season-long six-game road trip, they also looked like the fresher club against an Islanders team that was playing at home for the first time since concluding a three-game, four-night road swing.
Wondering how his club might respond from that was something that concerned head coach Jack Capuano before the opening faceoff.
“As a coach and a staff, you always worry a little bit about the first game back [home] after a road trip,” he said. “Not everybody had their game tonight, but we found a way to win and that’s the sign of a good team.
“We had guys tonight that tried to get too fancy — throwing pucks up the middle instead of using the yellow, [not playing] high percentage hockey [or] pushing the pace… it was just one of those games… it wasn’t us. We didn’t do a lot of good things. We passed up opportunities to shoot pucks, but we found a way.
“It was not the way that we wanted to play, and I want to give [the Oilers] some credit because they caused some of that.”
Cizikas wasn’t as quick to heap praise on Edmonton and rather blamed his own team for making mistakes while he was ultimately pleased to escape with a win.
“Everything that they had, we gave them,” he said. “We turned pucks over, we weren’t getting pucks in deep and we weren’t playing fast the way we need to. It just goes to show, when we get away from our game, that’s what happens. We found a way to get the two points tonight, and that’s all that matters.”
After center Anders Lee (one assist, two penalty minutes) was whistled for the game’s first penalty (for hooking), Edmonton cashed in 23 seconds later, when right winger Iiro Pakarinen (one assist) sent a soft wrist shot toward the net from inside the blue line, to the left of goaltender Jaroslav Halak (29-11-0), who made 34 saves.
The puck caromed off of Halak’s right pad, to right winger Nail Yakupov (one assist), who sent a soft slap shot toward the crease, from the left circle. Standing in front of the net, left winger Ryan Hamilton (one goal) was able to barely get a stick on the shot, to send the puck knuckling through Halak’s legs for his first NHL score (in his 15th career game), 10:17 into the opening period.
New York tied the game just 3:03 later, when defenseman Travis Hamonic (one assist) sent a puck off the right boards to right winger Colin McDonald (one goal, one assist and a game-high nine hits), who was standing to the right of the net. McDonald played the puck back to left winger Matt Martin (one assist), who was denied from close range by goaltender Viktor Fasth (5-14-2). But McDonald alertly put away the rebound off of Fasth’s left pad for his second goal of the season.
A little over 5½ minutes into the second period, defenseman Brian Strait fed center Brock Nelson from the left wing, but Fasth made one of his 25 saves to keep things even.
Less than five minutes later, New York’s leading scorer and captain, center John Tavares, sent a hard slap shot on net from the right circle, but that shot was likewise turned aside by Fasth.
Taveres set up the Islanders’ first lead immediately thereafter, however. After Tavares won the ensuing faceoff, Lee sent a pass back to defenseman Thomas Hickey (two assists), whose slap shot from just inside the blue line was redirected by the stick of left winger Josh Bailey (one goal, four penalty minutes) and past the right shoulder of Fasth, to put New York up, 2-1, on Bailey’s ninth goal of the year, with 8:33 left in the period.
Edmonton later caught a break when center Matt Hendricks (four penalty minutes) decked Tavares into the boards at the Islanders’ blue line, in front of the Oilers’ bench. Having his star teammate’s back, Bailey went after Hendricks. The two nearly fought and were each called for roughing. Yet Bailey also received a curious cross-checking penalty which gave the Oilers their third and final power play, with 4:55 to go in the stanza.
Umarked between the circles, center Anton Lander (one goal) scored his second goal of the season, after passes from right winger Jordan Eberle (one assist) and center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (one assist), as he fired a high shot through a narrow opening between Strait and Halak, with 29 seconds left on the man-advantage.
Nelson was again unable to get much on another good crossing pass in front of the net with under three minutes to go in the period, and the Islanders couldn’t capitalize on their final power play, spanning the end of the second period and the beginning of the third.
Taking control of play for much of the final period, Edmonton began to put pressure on Halak, who came up big, especially when he stopped Pakarinen on a close wrist shot with 11:28 left.
It wasn’t until more than a minute later, when a Fasth saved a close wrist shot by Lee, that New York finally got its first shot on net of the period with 10:43 remaining.
With time winding down in regulation, the first-place team found a path to another victory that it perhaps didn’t deserve, while the struggling Oilers let at least another point get away, thanks particularly to the hustling efforts of McDonald.
Following a setup pass from Hickey, McDonald lost the puck and fell to the ice. Outstretched and laying on his belly, McDonald was able to get two swipes on the puck, the second of which passed through traffic to a waiting Cizikas, who from the slot, put the game-winner past Fasth to end a personal streak of 24 consecutive games without a goal.
“It was massive,” Cizikas said of McDonald’s determination. “The second effort to get that puck to me, that’s what creates the goal [and] us getting the two points and walking away with a win.”
Clamping down defensively, the Islanders allowed only two more harmless shots on goal (each in the final 35 seconds) from that point forward.
Having won this season in Buffalo, at the New York Rangers and in New Jersey — which provided Edmonton’s only non-extra time road wins this year — the Oilers were unable to complete the season sweep with road wins over NHL teams from New York state or the New York City area.
In a far more historical perspective, Edmonton (with New York moving to Brooklyn next season) lost its final eight games at Nassau Coliseum, dating back to 1999.
Long before that, the Islanders won the last of their four consecutive Stanley Cups, closing out a sweep of the Oilers in the 1983 Cup Finals at the Coliseum.
A year later, New York tied the 1984 Cup Finals at a game apiece with a 6-0 win at the Coliseum in Game 2, before Edmonton went home and won three straight games to simultaneously end the Islanders’ dynasty and kick off one of their own, in which the Oilers won a remarkable five cups in seven years.
As for this season, the Islanders avenged a 5-2 loss in Edmonton on January 4 and reached 35 wins for the first time in seven years.
To build on that, New York hopes to take advantage of a period it began on Tuesday night, one that features a pair of four-game homestands which will bookend a stretch of nine home dates in 11 games. The win against the Oilers also raised the Islanders’ home record to 18-6 this year and marked the first of three straight home games for New York against sub-.500 teams. The next one will be against Toronto on Thursday night.
“We’ve been looking forward to this stretch for a long time now,” Cizikas said. “With our crowd and the way that we’ve been playing here, it’s going to be a huge advantage for us. We’re going to play each game one by one and play our hearts out.”