December 30, 2013

Isles Rally from Three Goal Deficit to Stun Wild 5-4

Given the fact that the Islanders were playing the Minnesota Wild, you just knew that Nino Niederreiter would do his best to make his presence felt. It seemed predictable, and I even indicated as much on the radio show on Sunday morning. While he didn't live up to my pregame prediction of two goals, he had a goal and an assist as he looked to pace the Wild against his former, struggling team and when he gave the Wild the 3-0 lead many - including myself - thought that was all they needed.

But something happened to the Wild on their way to staying undefeated in regulation when they go into a 3rd period with a lead.

It actually all started in the second period, when the Isles got the puck in front of Josh Harding and were scrambling for rebounds after he had trouble controlling the puck. His defensemen didn't do enough to help, and John Tavares was able to bang home a lose puck from the side of the net between two defenders sticks to give the Isles a garbage goal they needed to begin to claw at the momentum and steal it from Minnesota.

The Islanders were given a huge chance to get even closer when they had a powerplay opportunity late in the second, but they didn't manage much there aside from a lot of play with the puck and a sustained forecheck. While it didn't result in any chances, it created exactly what the Islanders needed. They were banging bodies around on the entire shift, and did an excellent job of defending against passes and clearing attempts. The tired Wild players could not get off for a change, and when Thomas Hickey faked Stephane Veilleux out on a shot attempt, he was able to reposition himself and take a harmless looking wrister. That fake out gave Cal Clutterbuck all the time he would need to pick up the stick he dropped and tip the puck in to cap off one of the Isles best shifts in weeks and the peak of the momentum shift for this game.

The Isles took the momentum, grabbed it by the horns and didn't let up as they pressed for much of the third period. Kyle Okposo stole the show in the third with his two goals as he continues to make his case for Team USA in the Olympics, but it all started off with some great shifts from key role players. Colin McDonald threw his body around a lot and it seemed to get the Wild off of their games, and he had a fight with Torrey Mitchell that helped set the tone even though he fell to the ice first. McDonald and Ryan Strome were key in the Isles tying goal, as Hickey continued his fine play of late and snuck in at just the right time for a beautiful redirect on a pass by McDonald.

When I think about the third as a whole, Okposo's second goal that turned out to be the game winner stands out in my mind not because of the actual goal but the play leading up to it. All game the Isles had been physical on the boards and winning battles, and the goal came off of a nice dump-and-chase opportunity that the Isles followed up on by crashing in deep. These are the plays that made them successful last year, and gave the Penguins a run for their money. These are the plays we've been screaming for all year, and in this game the Isles started doing it with more consistency.

That idea actually gives me some hope that this team might finally start to get it again. They lost their mojo somewhere along the way, and have become too fancy. But with some solid performances in recent games, it's no secret that it's been because their board play has greatly improved. Getting a come from behind win over a good team because of that might just be what these guys need to put together some kind of a solid streak. The last few minutes of the game were a bit uneasy, as the Isles just about collapsed in front of their own net but a few fortunate bounces wide prevented the Wild from evening the score once again and the Isles were able to leave Minnesota happy. Kevin Poulin certainly could have been a bit better in that sequence, but in general he made some nice saves throughout the game and reacted well on some chances. Some rust was definitely visible as he got his first start in a while. Rebounds were still an issue, and there were some easy ones he could have covered up or prevented but nothing bit him too much in the end. But in other games it won't go the same way.

Of course they'll need to do a lot of the same things the 2nd and 3rd period saw if they are to have a similar outcome against the Bruins. They've had some great performances against them over the last couple of years, so it could potentially turn out to be a great time for them to gain confidence and try and turn things around this season.

- Chris

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