The New York Islanders are inching closer to ending their six-year playoff drought.
Matt Martin's goal with 6:26 remaining broke a tie as the Islanders beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 on Saturday night at a sold-out Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The victory assured New York of ending the week in the top eight in the Eastern Conference, where they haven't finished since 2007.
Martin took a pass from rookie Anders Lee, crossed the Tampa Bay blue line and cut to the high slot before wristing a shot through a screen that went between the pads of goaltender Ben Bishop. It was his third of the season, but two have come against the Lightning -- one in each of Tampa Bay's visits to the Coliseum.
Andrew MacDonald hit the empty net from 150 feet away while on his knees to give the Islanders their third win this week, along with a shootout loss, giving them 42 points. Both New York teams, the Islanders and Rangers, have 42 points; the Rangers are seventh and the Islanders eighth because the Rangers have a game in hand. Both teams are two points ahead of Winnipeg and three ahead of New Jersey.
"We're working toward what we are trying to accomplish, and we still have a ways to go," said center John Tavares, who assisted on Michael Grabner's goal midway through the first period. "We still have much we can do better. But we are excited to be in this position."
It was the kind of game the Islanders have lost too many of this season -- they twice gave up leads, the second time early in the third period. But instead of folding, the Islanders stepped up their game and dominated the last 15 minutes, something they hadn't been doing earlier.
"We're finding a way to compete, to get the two points," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "That's a good hockey team out there and we battled hard for the win."
Even after Martin's goal put them ahead, the Islanders forechecked rather than going into a defensive shell -- and held the Lightning without a shot on goal the rest of the way.
"After the Martin goal, I didn’t want us to change anything,” Capuano said. “We continued to play within the team concept and structure. We continued to play our game. And I thought we protected the blue lines. I thought we won the wall battles. I thought we did a lot of the little things which turned out to be the big things for us.”
“As far as I’m concerned, we are in the playoffs,” Nabokov said. “That’s what this is for us. We have to keep rolling. The key here is we can’t lose two or three in a row. We have to continue to find a way to get points.
"It's the discipline and little things. We can't get ahead of ourselves. It's going to take a lot of work and we have a tough schedule ahead."
New York plays six of its final nine games, including the last five, away from home.
A giveaway by former Islander Nate Thompson turned into the game's first goal. Thompson's pass was picked off just inside the Tampa Bay blue line; Grabner took the puck, raced down the middle, took a look at Tavares and decided to take a quick slap shot that went over Bishop's glove at 14:45.
“First I saw Johnny,” Grabner said. “But the other team went right to him and took him away. I was in a little bit of a stand-still and nobody else was around so I was able to walk right down the pipe."
Tampa Bay went more than 10 minutes between shots on goal, but forced Nabokov to make his best save of the period on Brett Connolly's point-blank shot with just over two minutes remaining in the period. The Lightning continued to press until New York's Frans Nielsen was called for hooking Steven Stamkos with 1:40 left in the period. But it was Bishop who had to be sharp -- he was called upon to stop Grabner's semi-breakaway and Bailey’s blast off a 2-on-1 just before the horn.
Tampa Bay came out stronger in the second period, got the Islanders running around in their own zone and tied the game at 4:44. A superb behind-the-back passout from behind the net by Vincent Lecavalier set up Panik in the lower-left circle for a wide-open one-timer, and he beat Nabokov easily for his second of the season.
Bailey put the Islanders back in front at 8:22, but Kyle Okposo did most of the work. Okposo carried the puck around the Lightning net out near the blue line, danced away from two defenders in the high slot and cut to the lower right circle before zipping a pass into the slot. Bailey kicked the puck into his stick and backhanded it into the net for his seventh of the season.
As they did at the beginning of the second period, the Lightning again came out strong to start the third -- and wasted little time tying the score at 2-2. Tampa Bay kept the play in the New York zone for the better part of a minute before Stamkos circled into the high slot and fired a shot that was stopped by Nabokov. But the goaltender had lost control of his stick and couldn't control the rebound, which came back into the slot, where Carle banged it in at the 4-minute mark. It was his fourth of the season, but first in 22 games.
The Islanders played without forward Matt Moulson, their second-leading scorer, who had the flu. It was the first game Moulson had missed since joining New York at the start of the 2009-10 season, a span of 284 consecutive games.
The Lightning lost in regulation for the first time in four games under new coach Jon Cooper -- partly because they turned over the puck 31 times -- Tampa Bay made 14 giveaways and the Islanders had 17 takeaways.
"We didn't do a good job of puck management," said Cooper, who replaced Guy Boucher on March 25. "We have to do a better job of that if we want to be successful."
The Lightning flew right out for a Sunday game at Washington, one that they cannot afford to lose.
"We've got to go in and play our game," Bishop said, "and we'll be fine."
Material from team media was used in this report.