The odds were in their favor. Momentum resided with the New York Islanders following Friday’s dramatic 7-6 overtime victory over the Detroit Red Wings, where they overcame a three-goal deficit. If the Isles prevailed against the Calgary Flames on Sunday, they would sit in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but instead they squandered a two-goal advantage and fell by a 3-2 final.
“The way we came back (on Friday), we wanted to keep that (momentum) going,” Isles’ forward Casey Cizikas said. “We played well for 40 minutes and then we got away from what made us successful. We were working hard, but we weren’t working smart. It’s a matter of limiting their (the Flames’) time and space in the forecheck.”
Over the last couple of weeks, the Islanders struggled to establish a rhythm early in games, but had few issues in that department against the Flames. The puck remained in the offensive zone for most of the first period and the Isles took an early lead on Cizikas’s seventh goal of the season. Cizikas poked a loose puck through the legs of goaltender Mike Smith while on his back. Recent Bridgeport call-up Ross Johnston led the way from a physical standpoint, applying pressure towards the walls and came ahead on a fight against Ryan Lomberg late in the period.
“We had a pretty good first period,” head coach Doug Weight said. “We did a good job getting into lanes and prevented a lot of opportunities, but in the second period we made a lot of bad decisions with the puck. We paid good attention to the things we needed to do early, but after that we didn’t. If that’s in the category of intensity, I’d say it’s pretty poor.”
Anthony Beauvilier, who briefly served as a teammate of Johnston during his AHL in early January, extended the Islanders’ lead in the second period with a goal through the five-hole. Once the Isles assembled a seemingly secure lead, they began to fray defensively and opened up holes for the Flames to exploit. New Jersey product Johnny Gaudreau cycled the puck to Sam Bennett who fed Mark Jankowski in front of the net in the waning seconds of the power play. The goal provided room for the Flames to climb back into the game and keep the Isles off balance.
“That’s a pretty good hockey team,” Mathew Barzal said of the Flames. “They play a fast-offensive style and they did a great job just clogging things up. With 45 shots, they are going to get a couple of good chances and unfortunately we collapsed a little bit at the end. It felt like most of the night (the ice) was tilted the other way and we didn’t have enough time in the offensive zone.”
As the third period progressed, the Flames controlled the pace of play, while keeping the puck in the Islanders’ zone. With little resistance, the Flames eventually connected on their chances and changed the complexion of the game. Matthew Tkachuk, the son of USA Hockey Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk supplied the game-tying goal midway through the period on a Michael Frolik assist. Tkachuk followed with the winning goal off a deflection with 65 seconds remaining as the Flames improved their road record to 16-6-5.
“They (the Flames) pushed harder and executed better,” John Tavares said. “They forced us to defend and have to survive some shifts. We have seen this happen to ourselves a few times this year and we are giving up too many goals in general. It’s making us harder down the stretch to get to where we need to get to and an area we need to be a lot better in.”
Sunday’s loss to the Flames marked the return of former Islanders’ defenseman Travis Hamonic. The 27-year-old Hamonic was a member of the Isles for seven seasons after being acquired as a second-round pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. The Islanders dealt Hamonic to the Flames last July for three draft picks, including a first round selection in the upcoming draft. Hamonic’s void looms large for an Islanders’ team that’s experienced their share of difficulties blocking shots and protecting leads.
“I was treated well not only by the organization, but also by my teammates, the staff, and the fans,” Hamonic said. “The respect that the Islanders showed me meant a lot since I was here for some tough years and some good years as well. You look back on your time and you change as a person and hopefully for the better. To play a game (as a visiting player) and get treated like that means a lot to me.”