December 30, 2014

Another 3 Goal Lead Blown, but Boychuk Saves the Day

Monday night's game against the Washington Capitals was a huge contest, for both teams really. In his pregame comments Braden Holtby even pointed out that the Isles were a potential playoff partner in the near future. Anyone who watched the game saw how much energy and passion there was, with physical play and a fanbase that once again showed up and ramped up the intensity especially as the Isles built up another 3-0 lead.

The Isles had some great jump to their game, getting the better of shots in on Holtby early on. Because the scoreboard was not working properly for those of us in attendance it was tough to judge other than going by what we observed. The official score sheet had the Isles up 11-6 after the first period, similar to the way that they played in the first period against Montreal.

Just like that game, the Isles had the 1-0 lead after the first frame. Anders Lee has been one of the most consistent forwards this season when it comes to being a consistent presence in front of the net and he was there again for the Isles when Thomas Hickey took a quick wrist shot from the blueline. It's tough to get pucks past the pads of Holtby, but Lee's tip took some great skill on his part and he found the best way to beat Holtby down low.

Washington did get some chances in on Jaroslav Halak finally in the 2nd period, but many were of the easier variety. The Islanders were able to control some of the play given that they had two of their seven power play opportunities in the middle frame and cashed in when Lubomir Visnovsky's slap shot was tipped in front and slowly fluttered past Holtby. For the Isles it was finally an end to some powerplay futility that plagued them recently.

Washington did have some sustained momentum in the 2nd which made everyone realize that the Isles needed to get the next goal. Brock Nelson's late penalty made this all the more important because it seemed like Washington would have a great chance to pull within one shortly after the start of the 3rd.

However, the Isles got a shorthanded goal from Calvin de Haan early in the final frame. It was a beautiful play that really started thanks to Nikolay Kulemin, who had his best game in a while for the Isles. Kulemin forced one of his four turnovers in the neutral zone, and came into the zone with speed to take a hard slap shot on Holtby. John Tavares picked up the rebound in the corner and found an open de Haan for the slapper. The Isles killed off the penalty and had another 3-0 lead, but with Halak in net and the team looking more confident surely another letdown wouldn't happen. Right?

Well, not exactly. The next few moments were tumultuous for the Isles, as much of the play was down low and behind the net. The Caps were putting on a very impressive display of forechecking and aggressiveness that the Isles didn't have much of a response for it. When Eric Fehr scored his 10th of the season on a scramble in front there was definitely a level of uneasiness that fell over the Coliseum faithful. It's one thing to give up a goal, but with 15 minutes still to play and given how Washington played after giving up the shorty, it seemed like the Isles could be in trouble.

De Haan took away some of the positive vibes he created for himself when he couldn't corral a puck at the blueline and allowed Alex Ovechkin - whom he had a step on - to poke the puck forward and gain possession, only to find a breaking Nicklas Backstrom for a breakaway goal not even two minutes after Fehr's. The collapse was in full force.

Halak did his best to stop that, coming up with a few huge saves including some late in the third period. But one of the Isles weaker points in Monday's match-up was defensive zone faceoffs, and they lost the biggest one with under three minutes to play. A clean win by Backstrom went straight to Ovechkin, who wasted no time in firing off a quick wrist shot through all sorts of traffic that Halak made his best effort on.

So here we were again, with the Isles blowing a three goal lead thanks to more defensive breakdowns and lack of a huge faceoff win in a late game situation.

With just over a minute to play a high stick was called, but with players gathering near center ice it seemed this was just the case of a puck being played with a high stick. After some confusion Evgeny Kuznetsov was sent to the box for four minutes and this was the Isles opportunity.

They didn't do much in the remainder of regulation, which is a shame since the Capitals have been hot of late and are doing their best in keeping up with the Rangers while trying to close the gap towards the Isles and Penguins. But either way both teams got a point and the Isles had the best chance to pick up two. And for a while this even seemed like it was in doubt.

Johnny Boychuk came to the rescue though, as the Isles finally got one of their big shots from the point to reach the net.

As thrilled as we can be with the Isles win, I do have to say I am mildly concerned. This is the fourth time in recent games that the Isles have blown a three goal lead - Minnesota, St. Louis and of course Buffalo being the others. And this was the only one of those games where the Isles actually hung on to win. If this is to become a habit, then it's really a blemish on the defense and it's not good at all that bad habits creep into the Isles game well after 3rd periods start.

This will be a habit they need to kick. Maybe another brush with luck here woke them up and snaps them out of whatever slumber it is they fall into, because this was a great effort that was basically ruined over the span of a few minutes.

With a really tough road trip coming up the Isles cannot afford to have this linger any longer. Winnipeg is up first, and they have put together some solid hockey so far in their quest to make the playoffs. Evander Kane being out certainly helps, but this team has played solid defensively and has gotten some excellent goaltending so the Isles will need to build up a lead and figure out a way to tighten up and hold it so they can go forward with confidence for the rest of the trip, because some of that certainly has been shaken with two consecutive 3-0 leads blown.

- Chris

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