After righting themselves in Carolina following a late, heartbreaking loss to their most hated rivals in a key divisional game, the New York Islanders would have had a sufficient excuse had they come home and lost another tough game against the best team in the NHL.
After all, the Islanders were hosting the Nashville Predators, who with 84 points, are the league’s the only team to reach 80 points thus far. And Nashville entered the Nassau Coliseum red hot on Thursday night, with a six-game winning streak.
But the Islanders aren’t interested in how good other teams are. They’re too focused on their own play and trying to win the Metropolitan Division while trying to position themselves for a deep playoff run that like the equally surprising Predators are hoping for, ends with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Of course, with the playoffs still about two months away, there’s still much work to be done to even begin to think about that.
However, with a convincing 5-2 victory, New York (39-19-1) sent a clear message to Nashville (39-13-1) and the rest of the NHL that its club is very much for real while tying the Predators for the league’s most victories.
Speaking of tying things, goaltender Jaroslav Halak (32-12-0), in his first season with the Islanders, outplayed the league’s second-best goalie, Pekka Rinne (35 saves on 40 shots) and made 30 saves (on 32 shots) to match the franchise record for victories set by Billy Smith (32-9-4 in 1981-82), Chris Osgood (32-25-6) and Rick DiPietro (32-19-9 in 2006-07).
Halak got plenty of offensive support, as five different Islanders scored, including defenseman Nick Leddy, who also added two assists, as did right winger Michael Grabner. Defensemen Brian Strait and Johnny Boychuk, center John Tavares and left winger Josh Bailey also scored for New York, which has made a habit of starting extremely fast recently.
Strait’s goal, just his second of the year, only one minute in, marked the fourth consecutive home game in which the Islanders scored within the first 1:11, as New York won for the sixth time in seven games.
Coupled with a Montreal Canadiens home loss to Tampa Bay the same evening, the Islanders tied the Canadiens for the Eastern Conference lead in points and temporarily moved ahead of Montreal based on a 32-31 edge in regulation and overtime wins.
Following up Strait’s goal, New York continued to get the jump on Nashville, with Boychuk making it 2-0 just past the midpoint of the opening period and Tavares netting a power play goal to extend the Islanders’ lead to 3-0, with 1:39 left in the frame.
Center Filip Forsberg trimmed the Predators’ deficit to 3-1 on a brilliant effort as he shot and scored with only 17.2 seconds left in the period, while diving to the ice.
The game stayed that way for a while until Nashville got back in it on a goal from defenseman Victor Bartley with 3:22 to play in the second period.
With the Predators threatening to tie things up, the Islanders, who were three earlier shots off of posts from already widening their lead, didn’t wilt and instead pulled away.
Leddy pushed New York’s advantage to 4-2, with 12:58 remaining, when he scored after a pass along the right boards by left winger Matt Martin to right winger Colin McDonald, who used his speed to accelerate through the Nashville zone before setting up Leddy with a perfect pass.
Just 1:39 later, Bailey closed the scoring after center Anders Lee took a pass from out of his own end and skated into the Predators’ end, before passing to Tavares on the right wing. Waiting patiently for Bailey, Tavares made a nice cross-ice pass to Bailey who charged at the net and left the puck just short of the goal line. But defenseman Roman Josi, trying to clear the puck, inadvertently smacked it off of Rinne and into the Nashville net.
Seeing the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins each lose at home the same night, the Islanders increased their division lead to five points over the second-place Rangers and to six points over the fourth-place Penguins.
They’ll head to Washington (tied with the Rangers) for a game on Saturday afternoon, knowing that keeping ahead of teams like that, the Rangers and Penguins is what matters most for now.
Yet in their first of two regular season meetings with the Predators, the Islanders gave their fans a lot more to dream about for later on as they head toward their final spring in their 43rd and last year at the Coliseum.