When a team like the Colorado Avalanche pays a visit to your arena, there is always the potential for a letdown. But despite those preconceived notions, the New York Islanders protected home ice on Sunday with a convincing 5-1 victory against the NHL’s last-place team and stand one point shy of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“The parity in the league is crazy. That’s a good hockey team there,” Islanders interim head coach Doug Weight said. “I know where they are in the standings, but regardless of that, they played hard. You have to step up playing at home and we got some really good plays. It was a good team win.”
On the heels of their 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, the Avalanche did their part to keep pace early with the surging Islanders and took advantage of a Casey Cizikas turnover to take a quick first-period lead. Forward Joe Colborne deked to the front of the net to score his first goal since recording an opening night hat trick against the Dallas Stars last October.
Playing their third game in four nights, the Islanders relied on their defense to jump-start their goal scoring and found success when Nikolai Kulemin screened Avalanche goaltender Calvin Pickard at the 12:01 mark of the first period, enabling Nick Leddy to even the score with his ninth goal of the year, the first of three points in the contest.
“I think in the last six weeks, Leddy has played at a Norris Trophy level,” said captain John Tavares. I just think he has taken games over and playing in all situations. It’s amazing the difference he’s making for us back there (on defense). He is changing the game.”
Leddy’s presence also proved vital with the Islanders on a two-man advantage in the second period. Leddy initiated a scoring opportunity with a pass to Tavares, who set up Ryan Strome for his ninth goal of the season. Strome, whose play improved in recent weeks, has points in six of his last seven games, while Leddy collected his 200th career point on the assist.
“Nick was awesome. He got his 200th point. He is a game-changer for us,” Weight said. “He’s an exceptional hockey player and has challenged himself physically and wants to play against the top lines. That’s refreshing and he wants to get better. In the last four weeks, he’s taken his game to a new level and I want him to keep going.”
In goal, backup J-F Berube made his eighth start of the season and enjoyed his finest outing stopping 26 of a possible 27 shots to improve his record to 2-4-2. Berube adeptly managed to keep the Avalanche off the scoreboard with critical saves, including a denial of a Nathan MacKinnon slap shot in the second period and a subsequent rebound attempt.
“We never looked backed,” Berube said. “It didn’t matter what the score was. I just feel like I was seeing pucks well and controlling rebounds and usually, when I do that, it ends up well for me. We just have to find a way to not let our minds drift and it’s worked out well for (Thomas) Griess and me.”
The Islanders’ dominance extended into the third period on two Anders Lee goals, including a power-play goal to create separation between the clubs. Lee, who ranks third on the team in scoring, buried his 21st goal of the season past Pickard and logged his fourth multi-point effort in six games.
With their victory against the Avalanche, the Islanders extended their home point streak to nine consecutive games and are on the precipice of playoff contention as they prepare to face the Maple Leafs and the Rangers in their next two games. With 18 points since January 17, the Islanders are riding the momentum, but understand there is still unfinished business.
“Both teams (Rangers and Maple Leafs) are ahead of us and we have to get as many points as we can to get back in the playoff race,” defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. “We look at the standings every day. We put ourselves in this position and we want to climb out of this so everybody in the dressing room looks at it every day.”