The New York Islanders made a strong late effort but were unable to overcome a sluggish first period and fell to the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3 at the Nassau Coliseum Friday night. The Leafs owned a 3-0 lead 11:15 into the game and while twice the Islanders pulled to within one goal, they were never able to even the game up. Clarke MacArthur had a goal and an assist while Tim Connolly had two helpers to lead the Maple Leafs attack. James Reimer stopped 31 shots to earn the win.
“For whatever reason, we came out a little bit flat,” Isles Coach Jack Capuano admitted. “After that, we worked hard, started to get physical and then we had some success…We were just flat footed [during the first half of the first period]. We weren’t ready to play and they took advantage of that.”
During the first 12 minutes of the game, the Islanders had severe difficulty covering Toronto forwards deep in Isles territory and often failed to clear the puck out of their own zone. The result were three quick goals by MacArthur, Nazem Kadri and Carl Gunnarsson that quickly made it 3-0 Toronto at the 11:15 mark of the first period. Kadri’s tally was a power play goal.
The crowd of 12, 432 at the Coliseum started to get on Isles starter Evgeni Nabokov, but the first three goals were due to blown coverages which resulted in plenty of room for Toronto’s quick forwards to operate in and around the Isles net.
To their credit, the Islanders did not quit. A rink long pass by Mike Mottau set up Kyle Okposo for a breakaway goal with 4:15 left in the first period and gave the Isles some hope as they headed into the locker room at the first intermission.
A power play tally by Frans Nielsen off a scramble in front of the Leafs net just 40 seconds into the second period pulled the Isles to within a goal at 3-2.
A turnover near the Leafs blueline on the power play led to a pretty 2-on-1 shorthanded goal by Joey Crabb who took a pass from Tyler Bozak and deposited it into an open side of the net. The pair made three cross ice passes between them to set up the open shot for Crabb which made it 4-2 Leafs at the 8:59 mark of the second period.
John Tavares scored midway through the third period to once again pull the Isles to within a goal. The home team had momentum on their side and were consistently pressuring the Toronto net when a controversial penalty call changed the momentum of the game. The Leafs Joffrey Lupul was called for high sticking Tavares when he poked the Isles top center just under his left eye with his stick. However, the officials also called Tavares for diving and assessed him a 2:00 unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which negated the Islanders power play and has both teams skating 4-on-4.
“It was terrible…I was just trying to get my way up on the backcheck and tried to get to the bench and he cross checked me in the head,” Tavares said after the game. “I don’t know how that’s a dive.”
Capuano was also disappointed with the officials’ call. “Johnny’s not the kind of player who’s going to dive at all,” he said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve, he works extremely hard, he takes a lot of pride. After watching the replay, it was clearly a high stick.”
The call against Tavares showed that the former first overall draft choice is not yet getting the respect most star players are accorded by officials in all sports. It clearly derailed the Islanders momentum and frustrated this young team. It also removed the Isles top offensive weapon from the ice for two of the remaining three minutes of the contest.
Neither team scored on the 4-on-4. The Islanders pulled Nabokov but couldn’t get the equalizer. Lupul put the game away with an empty net goal in the final seconds of the game.
“I think the energy and intensity we showed in the second half of the game, that’s what we have to do the full game,” Isles forward Matt Moulson said when asked what his club needs to do better after the holiday break. “That’s the way we’re going to get wins. We can’t have the starts that we did today.”
The Islanders return to action Monday when they visit the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Leafs resume their schedule Tuesday when they visit the Florida Panthers.
Steve Staios was a healthy scratch for the Isles while David Ullstrom and Al Montoya remain sidelined with injuries. John-Michael Liles, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill were the Leafs scratches.