(PHOTO CREDIT: BRUCE BENNETT, GETTY IMAGES)
Taking the ice for the first time in their "Reverse Retro" jerseys, the New York Islanders once again faced the lousy, sluggish Buffalo Sabres Saturday at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
But it was the Islanders who were, in fact, sluggish from the 1:00 PM puck drop on the Island. Just 33 seconds in, the Sabres struck first. Jacob Bryson notched his first NHL goal, with Brandon Montour (4) and Jack Eichel (15) getting assists. New York woke up towards the end of the period and outshot the Sabres 11-7 in the first twenty minutes. Regardless, New York was turning the puck over and allowing too many high danger chances for the talented Buffalo offense, and the score showed that.
After Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams addressed the media on Friday and bringing up his team's awful effort, did they respond? Were they sending a message?
Absolutely not, as New York sent their response to Buffalo, scoring four unanswered goals. The first one was one of the most incredible goals you will ever witness. Isles defenseman Scott Mayfield sent the puck around the boards on an attempted breakout pass. Jordan Eberle was able to tip it forward to the superstar himself, Mathew Barzal. Barzal then made Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen look silly and made him fall. In alone on Sabres goaltender Carter Hutton, Barzal went between his legs with the puck and got it past Hutton for his ninth goal of the season. Eberle (6) and Mayfield (5) helped Barzal score this highlight-reel beauty.
With the game tied, just 1:25 after the Barzal beauty, Brock Nelson showed off his quick release, beating Hutton glove side on a top-shelf snipe for his seventh goal of the season. Anthony Beauvillier (4) and Ryan Pulock (9) assisted the goal 5:16 in, giving New York their first lead of the game (2-1).
Just over three minutes later and 8:45 in, Cal Clutterbuck netted his second goal of the season. With the fourth line rolling and getting their job done, the Islanders are a scary team in terms of depth. Matt Martin (3) and Adam Pelech (5) were credited with assists on Clutterbuck's goal.
New York was not done yet, though. 15:29 into the third period, Scott Mayfield picked up his second point of the game and second goal of the season. New York was officially in the driver's seat. Casey Cizikas (6) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (6) both recorded assists. Holding a 4-1 lead heading into the second period, Barry Trotz's Isles showed every indication of picking up their fourth straight victory. But had a penalty to kill that carried over into the third period. New York outshot the Sabres 9-5 in the second period.
The Sabres did not wave the white flag yet. The Isles killed the penalty, but just after it expired (52 seconds into the final regulation frame), Sam Reinhart continued his consistent play, scoring his ninth goal of the season. Rasmus Dahlin (9) and Victor Olofsson (10) got assists. But like they did all game, the Islanders responded. New York's captain, Anders Lee, netted his eleventh goal of the season, with Noah Dobson (8) and Barzal (13) getting the helpers. New York was outshot by the Sabres 10-9 in the final frame but outshot them 29-22 in the full 60-minutes. The final score was 5-2. New York has yet to lose a game in regulation on home ice (they are 9-2 at the Coliseum). The boys in blue and orange are now 7-2-1 in their last ten games.
"New York Islanders" sounds great, but how does first place "New York Islanders" sound? The Islanders' growth has been a joy to watch, and they are far from done growing and improving. With the veterans needed to make a huge push, and the young guys needed to play a fast and steady game, most teams will fear the Isles come playoff time. Their physicality, forechecking ability, defensive efforts, and goaltending are all off the charts. If this keeps up, Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin could quickly become the greatest goaltending tandem in the National Hockey League. Mathew Barzal has adapted beautifully to New York's defensive structure and has not let his production take a hit. In a full 82-game season, Anders Lee would be on pace for 36-37 goals. So far, the captain's monstrous seven-year deal with an average-annual-value of $7,000,000 has been worth every penny. Lee has solidified himself as the best net-front presence in hockey while playing a steady defensive game.
With the emergence of young stud sniper Oliver Wahlstrom, how many pieces are they away from hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup? Is this their year? Is this just a growth year where they take one step closer? What happens when prospects such as Samuel Bolduc, Bode Wilde, Robin Salo, Simon Holmstrom, and Anatoly Golyshev develop? Time will tell, but what we do know is organizationally, this is the best place the Islanders have been since the dynasty era. With Jon Ledecky, Scott Malkin, Lou Lamoriello, and Barry Trotz at the helm, anything is possible.
New York plays Buffalo for the third straight game on NBC Sunday at noon, Eastern Time for "Hockey Day In America." They look to win their fifth straight game, and collect their tenth win on home ice and retain first place. What's better than winning a game on national television?