UNIONDALE, N.Y. — For a while, it looked as though the NHL’s most successful team in one-goal games might have to grind out another close victory. Then its best player took over and provided some separation.
Tied in the third period with the Columbus Blue Jackets (24-27-3), the New York Islanders (37-18-1) scored the final three goals — the last two coming from center John Tavares — to earn their fourth straight victory, 6-3, at the Nassau Coliseum on Saturday night.
Initially playing a facilitator role, Tavares (two goals, two assists, first star) nicely set up fellow center Josh Bailey (two goals, one assist, second star) for a pair of scores to help stake the Islanders to a two-goal lead within the first 8½ minutes.
But after New York squandered that advantage, as well as a 3-2 second-period lead, center Frans Nielsen (one goal, one assist, third star) scored what proved to be the game-winning goal 1:54 into the final stanza before center Anders Lee — who entered the night with just six assists in 49 games this season — recorded two of his four assists in the game to help Tavares score his team-leading 25th and 26th goals of the year.
Aiming to quickly pounce on 22-year-old rookie goaltender Anton Forsberg (0-3-0), who was making just his fourth appearance and third start in the league, the Islanders took eight of the first nine shots and scored on the game’s first shot on goal, just 1:07 after the opening faceoff, as Tavares stole a clearing attempt from defenseman Jack Johnson (no points) behind the Blue Jackets’ net, and got the puck to Lee, who despite being harassed by two defenders, managed to poke the puck to Bailey for a 17-foot snap shot that found the back of the net.
A little over seven minutes later, Tavares and Bailey teamed up again as Lee tipped a shot over the net that was picked up by Tavares, who moved behind the goal toward Forsberg’s right, then back the other way with Johnson chasing him in back of the net, to feed Bailey for a tough-angled shot that squeezed through for a 2-0 New York lead, 8:21 into the first period.
Columbus began to awaken, and with the help of three shots on goal on its first power play (after the Islanders failed to get a shot on their first man-advantage), took seven of the next 11 shots on net, the last of which cut New York’s lead in half, as left winger Matt Calvert (one assist) came out of the Blue Jackets’ zone and pushed the puck just across the red line, where center Brandon Dubinsky (one goal) picked it up and came down the left wing to beat goaltender Jaroslav Halak (34 saves) up high, from the left circle with 4:15 left in the frame.
Nearly reaching the first intermission still in front, the Islanders allowed a tying goal when defenseman Brian Strait (one assist) let a bouncing puck hop over his stick at his own blue line. Right winger Cam Atkinson (one goal) took advantage of the miscue to move in close from the right wing and score an unassisted goal just inside the right post, to tie the game, 2-2, with only 31.5 seconds to go in the period.
New York dominated the first 13 minutes of the second period and went back in front before Columbus again scored in the final minute of the stanza to even the game.
Taking 16 of the first 17 second-period shots on net, the Islanders had already fired 14 shots on Forsberg (40 saves) by the midpoint of the frame while holding a convincing 31-12 edge in shots halfway through regulation.
A strong New York forecheck kept the puck in the offensive end, leading to a hard slap shot from between the circles by defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (one assist), which was stopped by the left pad of Forsberg. But center Ryan Strome (one goal) quickly put the rebound under a diving Forsberg, to end a stretch of 18 consecutive saves by Forsberg and put the Islanders back up by a goal, 7:02 into the period.
Battling back, the Blue Jackets took six of the final seven shots of the frame, and outshooting New York 19-12 in the final period, attempted 25 of the last 38 shots of the game.
Scoring at almost the identical point as at the end of the first period, some outstanding teamwork tied the game, 3-3, with 31.3 seconds remaining in the second stanza, less than three seconds after Columbus’ second of four unsuccessful power plays expired (New York was also 0-for-4 on the power play).
Stringing four straight passes together, the Blue Jackets were masterful as left winger Scott Hartnell (one assist, game-high nine penalty minutes) took a pass just over the blue line, then spun around and left the puck for defenseman James Wisniewski (one assist), who passed back to Hartnell, who finally made a perfect centering pass which allowed left winger Nick Foligno to even the game with his 22nd goal of the season.
While that might have been deflating for the home team last season, this year’s Islanders recovered early in the third period, and took control when center Mikhail Grabovsky (one assist) curled along the right boards and made a cross-ice pass to defenseman Thomas Hickey (one assist), who floated a soft pass that left Nielsen with an easy opportunity in front to give Islanders a 4-3 lead, 1:54 into the frame.
“The poise and composure that we play with this year is far ahead from last year, it’s unbelievable,” Tavares said. “And you can just sense that confidence and understand that we’re dictating the game.”
He added, “We knew that we were doing a lot of good things and controlling most of the play, so if we could just kinda keep that momentum going, we felt, especially with them having to play last night and travel, we could just wear them down and eventually put them away.”
Bailey said, “We faced some adversity, but I thought we handled it well and we got the result we were looking for.”
That type of belief was backed by head coach Jack Capuano, who said, “Nothing with this team right now phases me. I think they’re in a good state of mind.”
Although Columbus started peppering Halak (31-11-0), who moved within one win of Billy Smith’s team record for wins in a season (when Smith went 32-9-4 in 1981-82), the Blue Jackets couldn’t break through with another goal as Tavares did so twice in a span of 4:07, to make sure New York wouldn’t need to improve upon its league-leading winning percentage of .815 (22-4-1) in one-goal games, and would instead move over .500 (15-14) in games decided by multiple scores this season.
After Lee passed out of the left corner to Strait at the left point, Forsberg stopped a shot by Strait. However, Tavares nicely corralled the loose puck and fired it past Forsberg to extend the Islanders’ lead to 5-3 with 12:52 remaining,
Working with Bailey to get on the scoreboard one last time, Tavares started a give-and-go at mid-ice, along the left side. Bailey dropped the puck back for Tavares, who blasted a shot past Forsberg from the left circle to close the scoring with 8:45 left.
Just over a minute later, the Coliseum crowd was looking for more and chanted, “We want seven!” before adding some very premature “We want the cup!” chants in final two minutes, about two months before the playoffs begin.
New York’s 37th win (its most since going 40-30-12 eight years ago) briefly matched the most in the NHL until Nashville won its 38 game of the year later in the evening. The Islanders’ 75th point also had them on top of the Eastern Conference until moments later, when Montreal pulled out a shootout win for its 76th point.
“It’s no secret, we know what the standings are like and we know what the competition’s like,” Tavares noted. “We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played.”
Continuing its Metropolitan Division dominance, the Islanders widened their division lead over Pittsburgh to three points as they won their 11th straight division game, while moving to 18-2 within the division overall (the NHL’s best mark of any club against its own division), including a perfect 11-0-0 at home.
Looking to maintain those trends on Monday night, New York will try to complete its current four-game homestand with a sweep while seeking to once again beat its biggest division rival, the third-place New York Rangers (71 points), for a fourth time in as many games this season at what is sure to be an electric Coliseum.
Despite their success within the division and against their cross-town rivals, the Islanders are keeping everything in its proper perspective.
“When you start looking too far into the future and forget about the present, sometimes things don’t go your way,” Bailey said. “We just take it one day at a time and that’s been going good for us that way.”
On what’s next for the Islanders, Tavares added, “[The division is] tight and we can’t take [the Rangers] for granted. “They’ve played some great hockey this year and they’re a very good team… and certainly, they’ll be ready to play. I’m sure they’re going to want to come in here and beat us… we know it’s a big game, we know we’re battling for position in the division and the conference… we have to be ready.”