January 21, 2014

Isles Battle Back to Split Home-and-Home with Flyers

I think we've all finally figured out the Isles strategy for winning games. They cannot have a lead going into the third period.

Once again, the team found themselves trailing after two, with the Flyers holding a 3-1 advantage. While it's tough to say two goal leads are commanding even in today's NHL, this was a game where the Isles did not look too crisp. As a matter of fact, both teams looked a bit sluggish, and the Isles caught a lot of breaks just because of miscues by the Flyers in the offensive zone.

This game felt like it was one big turnover. Neither team seemed able to maintain control of the puck for any length of time and it created some frustrating moments.

The Flyers got on the board first because the Islanders defense was a little out of position, and it allowed Matt Read to skate in on what looked like was going to be a 2-on-1. But John Tavares was a bit lazy on the play and Andrew MacDonald went belly down onto the ice that all Read had to do was lift a backhander over Anders Nilsson. Nilsson also went down early, and it's not a good thing to have a 6'5" goaltender giving up goals on weak shots over his shoulders.

Tavares was able to make up for his lack of defense on this play with some phenomenal offensive efforts throughout the game, and even had a goal of his own to tie it all up after a Kyle Okposo shot failed but dribbled to a wide open Tavares.

The first big turnover that cost the Isles came later in that second period when Michael Grabner and Brock Nelson failed to get the puck out of the zone and it was kept in by the Flyers. Matt Donovan struggled and Nilsson was way out of position which allowed Wayne Simmonds to score on his own second opportunity. Grabner was a little slow in getting back and Nelson was out-muscled in covering Simmonds. The play was a mess all around with bodies flailing, something we've seen this team do plenty of at times unfortunately.

At the same time, it never felt at any point that the Flyers just took momentum and ran with it. Another weak goal by Read thanks to MacDonald and Brian Strait running into one another after a power move around Colin McDonald came late in the period but the Flyers didn't look like a team coming out in the 3rd with momentum.

The Isles thoroughly outplayed the Flyers in the final period, on all ends of the puck. They spent a great deal of time in the offensive zone and to his credit Ray Emery did make some solid saves. But there's only so much he can do, and it seemed like only a matter of time where we'd see those limitations reached. He had a lot of close calls earlier in the game but it all came to a head in the 3rd period.

Buzzing in the middle of the 3rd thanks to a powerplay, the Isles were unable to capitalize but maintained control of the puck. Josh Bailey made a blind pass towards the crease, and Nelson was wide open on the left side for a nice slam dunk goal to bring the Isles within one and plenty of time to play. The Isles continued to bump and grind their way through the period, but time was getting close to expiration.

With just under four minutes to play, the Flyers got called for a penalty and the Isles found themselves once again in a pressure situation. The powerplay in general throughout the game had looked lethargic, so you certainly couldn't blame anyone who felt that with the game on the line there was a good chance the Isles would not perform on the man advantage. But we couldn't have been more wrong. After some great movement early on, MacDonald faked a shot and found Frans Nielsen, who then quickly fired the puck across the ice to Okposo so he could complete his Gordie Howe hat trick.

Although the Flyers controlled the overtime, the Isles never broke in that frame. It took the shootout where Okposo would end up with the game winner.

I've talked about it at length in this space in recent weeks, but in this case I'll take the shootout win in a three point game over a division rival. First and foremost the team needs to make-up ground, and now putting themselves within striking distance is huge. They'll have plenty of chances in the upcoming weeks to get back to snuff against the rest of the division.

It'll start with a trip to MSG, a building in which the Isles have had some recent success at. But let's not discount the fact that the Rangers appear to have finally adjusted to Alain Vigneault's system. It'll be a very interesting but crucial match-up for the Isles.

- Chris

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