Islanders head coach Jack Capuano isn’t the type who calls out his team in public very often, so when he did prior to Monday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team responded with their best performance in weeks and a convincing 5-2 win over the Bolts at Barclays Center.
John Tavares led the way with a goal and two assists while Thomas Greiss made 32 saves to lead the Islanders. With the victory, the Isles magic number to clinch a playoff spot is reduced to two points.
Prior to the game, Capuano specifically called out some younger players, namely Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Ryan Strome. All three responded with solid performances. Nelson scored a big goal on a pretty backhander that gave the Isles a 3-1 lead in the second period. Bailey finished with a plus-one rating and three hits and Strome added three shots. All three players seemed to play with more intensity, went to the net more frequently and competed like they needed to when their club was fighting for a playoff berth this late in the season.
Capuano also mentioned after Saturday’s embarrassing 5-0 loss to Pittsburgh that he preferred to play veteran defensemen in the stretch drive because they were more reliable and experienced. Tonight, rookie Ryan Pulock was inserted into the lineup and he responded with a goal, a fight, four shots on net and a plus-two rating. He also played well enough on defense to prove he was not a liability. Pulock only needed an assist to complete the Gordie Howe hat trick.
“I thought he played well,” Capuano said after the game when asked about Pulock. “When Ryan first came here we had a veteran group of guys. He knew that he was going to be in and out of the lineup and he’s handled it quite well. He stepped up tonight. He played hard, not only because he engaged physically but he made some really good decisions with the puck and he made some hard plays when he had to.”
For the first time in weeks, the Islanders gave a complete 60-minute effort. The fourth line contributed with a pretty goal by Matt Martin who scored on a breakaway set up by a nice pass by Cal Clutterbuck. Martin doesn’t score too many highlight reel goals, but on this one, he picked up speed and beat Ben Bishop for a goal as pretty as any 50-goal scorer could manage.
Tavares also responded. The captain scored a power-play goal, added a pair of helpers and was a plus-two for the game. More importantly, Tavares was pleased with the way his team bounced back.
“I thought we were a lot hungrier,” he said when asked to compare his team’s performance tonight as opposed to Saturday against the Penguins. “You could see we were trying to create some pressure, create some turnovers. We were really trying to be a unit of five supporting each other with one guy able to dictate the play and where the puck is going. Then we can jump on loose pucks and use our speed to make plays and play strong down low. We did a much better job of working for it.”
That aggressive, quick style was the way the Islanders played during the first half of last season when they got off to such a good start. This year, that style has only been seen in brief spurts, especially in the last dozen games. The result was inconsistent play.
The game was not without its problems, however. Defenseman Calvin de Haan went down with a lower-body injury and will be out for at least the team’s next game Tuesday night in Washington. More information about de Haan’s status is expected on Tuesday.
With Travis Hamonic already out of the lineup, the Isles can ill afford to lose de Haan, another consistent player, especially in the defensive zone. de Haan isn’t flashy, but he is steady and reliable. The team’s defensive depth is thin and winning without de Haan and Hamonic in the short term will be a difficult challenge.
But with this impressive win, the Islanders restored some of the confidence that seemed to be missing from the locker room in recent weeks.
Now the Islanders need to replicate tonight’s performance. “I really like the way we responded and now we have to carry it over to tomorrow,” Tavares said. “That is the real important test–to test our character on a tough back-to-back against a team that has own the President’s Trophy already and and we are still fighting hard here. That’s really going to be a great test for us.”
The Islanders meet the Capitals in Washington Tuesday at 7 PM. A win and they clinch a playoff berth for the second consecutive season.
Official attendance was 13,106.
Greiss’ win gave him 22 on the season, a new career high.
Tavares’ goal was his 30th of the season. That’s the third time the Isles captain reached the 30-goal plateau in his career.