It’s been a long December for the Islanders, but at the tail end of it, they finally won back-to-back games.
Tuesday marked their first time completing that particular feat since a four-game winning streak that spanned from Nov. 21-26, and they did it with one of their best all-around performances of the season, resulting in a 5-1 victory that gave the Penguins just their second regulation loss in 11 games.
For the better part of 60 minutes, the Islanders played a game of relentless forechecking, below the hashes possession and cycling the puck that we haven’t seen from them so much recently. Coach Lane Lambert would call it playing “north” — not north-south, a term some coaches use. He prefers his players going only in one direction. Forward.
And against Sidney Crosby and the Pens, there was no retreat.
“That might’ve been our best game of the year,” Mathew Barzal said.
The Islanders took the lead just a minute into the game, retook it a minute into the second period and did not look back. In a night of intra-divisional hockey in the Metropolitan — and it was hard not to notice the Capitals beating up on the Rangers across town — the Isles (20-14-2) came out gaining two points on the Blueshirts, who are now their closest rivals on the playoff cutline.
After Anders Lee and Pierre-Olivier Joseph traded first-period goals, the second turned into perhaps the most decisive 20 minutes of hockey the Islanders have played all season.
Barzal deflected Hudson Fasching’s slap shot past Tristan Jarry just 50 seconds in to hand a 2-1 lead back over to the Islanders. Josh Bailey made it three off a fantastically deceptive feed from Noah Dobson at 11:32, the defenseman lifting his stick as if to shoot and fooling all Penguins players, who promptly left Bailey all alone at the backdoor. Then it was Barzal again at 16:42, converting a shot from the bottom of the right circle off a broken play to blow the game open.
Lee poured another one on 3:33 into the third, banging in a rebound from Brock Nelson. If anyone was worried about a collapse, that goal was when the worry evaporated.
“As much as we played north tonight, our D-men held the puck, our D-men skated up the ice, our D-men made good passes to the middle and made it easy for the forwards,” Barzal said. “As much as we want to play north, when they’re holding the puck and allowing us to come forward on the ice and change with possession, it really makes a difference.”
“It gives us time to get open and work off them,” Lee said. “When they’re able to beat a guy, all of a sudden it turns an even play into, you have an advantage, even if it’s four-on-three.”
The Islanders have played alongside good teams this year and shown they belong. But Tuesday was the first time they thoroughly dominated one. It could not have come at a more opportune moment.
This is a banged-up team — and one that lost Oliver Wahlstrom on what looked like a hit to the head just 24 seconds into his first shift of the game on Tuesday. Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas returned to the lineup, but who knows when Kyle Palmieri, Cal Clutterbuck, Simon Holmstrom, Adam Pelech or Semyon Varlamov will follow.
Hudson Fasching has been a revelation, and played a splendid game on Tuesday as he picked up an assist. Aatu Raty again looked like he belonged on NHL ice. But make no mistake, the current stretch is the closest the Isles can get to last season’s COVID-afflicted homecoming as far as the makeup of their lineup.
It is not so bad as it was then — not the players on the ice, nor the results they are getting. That was true even before the Islanders dispatched of the Panthers and Penguins by the combined score of 10-2 to bridge the holidays, but it is doubly so now.
Given the circumstances, surviving would be a reasonable goal. If Tuesday is any indication, though, the Islanders are beginning to thrive.
“We managed the puck,” Lambert said. “I thought we put it in deep. I thought we established a really good forecheck. And that’s what playing north is.”
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