Don't look now, but those "down-and-out" Islanders are just two points behind the New Jersey Devils and 10 back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Blake Comeau's deflection with 57.3 seconds remaining in overtime gave the pesky Islanders a 4-3 victory against Toronto at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday night, costing the Leafs a valuable point in their own quest for the playoffs.
Defenseman Radek Martinek, playing in his first game since Feb. 21, fired a slap shot from the right point, and Comeau's tip caught the top far corner as the Islanders survived three blown leads to improve to 3-0-1 with one game remaining in a five-game homestand.
The Leafs did get one point, moving them within four points of eighth-place Buffalo, which lost 3-1 at Pittsburgh. But they knew why they didn't get the other one.
"We said before the game they have the third-best record (after the All-Star break)," Toronto forward Clarke MacArthur said of the Isles. "They beat us to a lot of pucks. We just have to bring more. They're a team with nothing to lose. That's a dangerous team to play against sometimes. It doesn't matter if they lose. They just outworked us."
Added Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf: "It's a big point for us. We didn't play very well. We just didn't have it. We didn't have a lot of jump. We'll take the point and move forward. We're not happy about the way we played."
But the Isles, despite losing 20 of 21 games earlier this season, are still alive -- at least they believe they are. New York hosts Boston on Friday night.
"We're not out of it yet," said Comeau, who is one goal shy of giving New York four 20-goal scorers this season. "As long as we keep winning, crazier things have happened."
After hitting three goal posts in the opening period, the Islanders took a 1-0 lead 2:15 into the second on Zenon Konopka's second goal of the season. With the teams at even strength, Konopka redirected Milan Jurcina's shot from the point past James Reimer (36 saves) for his first goal since Dec. 2.
Rookie forward Justin DiBenedetto picked up the secondary assist for his first NHL point.
However, the Isles' lead lasted all of 34 seconds, as Leafs defenseman Keith Aulie notched his first NHL goal at 2:49. Aulie, a fourth-round selection by Calgary in 2007, took a pass from behind the net by Tim Brent and snapped a quick wrister past Al Montoya (24 saves) to make it 1-1.
"It's nice to chip in," Aulie said. "It's nice to get my first one. I haven't really thought about it."
Reimer preserved the tie with 12:15 remaining in the second period, when he denied Matt Martin in a penalty shot. Martin was awarded a free breakaway after being hooked by Phaneuf, but Reimer easily gobbled up his wrister to keep it a 1-1 game.
New York restored the one-goal lead at 11:17 on Frans Nielsen's ninth goal of the season. Nielsen, who has 5 points in his last four games, collected Andrew MacDonald's rebound off the goal post and stuffed it past Reimer to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead.
Nielsen, who also assisted on Comeau's game-winner, now has 38 points, matching the career-high he set a season ago.
"I play with (Michael) Grabner and (Kyle) Okposo, and they make it pretty easy for me," said Nielsen, one of the best defensive forwards in the League. "You try to get open and follow them. If you can't create offense when you play with those two, it's not good. It's always fun when you get on the scoring sheet and when you can do some offense for the team, too. But definitely Okie and Grabs (are) helping me, too."
Montoya helped the Islanders stay in front with a pair of big saves later in the second. Not long after he robbed MacArthur on a point-blank chance, Montoya stretched his left pad across the goal crease to deny Joffrey Lupul's one-timer during a Leafs' power play.
"We deserved to win," said Montoya, who has yet to allow a first-period goal in nine starts with the Islanders. "It was kind of a weird game. It just came in bunches. There (were) lulls in the game. These guys battled. They played hard. I think we deserve what we got."
Montoya's inability to control the puck after making a save against Colby Armstrong allowed Tim Brent to poke home a rebound as the Leafs tied the game for a second time with 1:16 remaining in the period. It was Brent's eighth goal of the season.
"Our best players were guys on the third and fourth line," Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. "We needed a better effort than that from some people and we just didn't get it. The top two lines weren't generating anything (and) weren't working as hard as we needed them to. Those are the guys we have come to rely on for offense."
Grabner gave the Isles their third lead of the night at 8:40 of the third period. The speedy winger, who has emerged as a Calder Trophy candidate over the past two months, took a cross-ice feed from Comeau and made a nifty move around Luke Schenn before firing a wrister past Reimer for his 27th goal of the season.
The resilient Leafs tied it again quickly, however, as Nikolai Kulemin tallied his 25th goal of the season just 68 seconds later. Kulemin, who entered with three goals in his previous four contests, parked himself in front of the net and swatted Mikhail Grabovski's rebound past Montoya to make it 3-3.
The Islanders had the better of the chances in OT before Comeau's deflection sent everyone home.
"You've got to keep battling … that's the resiliency of our team right now," Isles interim coach Jack Capuano said. "Night in and night out, they're showing it. It was a good feeling on the bench tonight. We believed in one another and we believed we were going to get that next one."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
|Zenon Konopka (2) ASST: Milan Jurcina (10), Justin DiBenedetto (1)|
1 - 0 NYI
|Keith Aulie (1) ASST: Jay Rosehill (2), Tim Brent (8)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Frans Nielsen (9) ASST: Kyle Okposo (10), Andrew MacDonald (22)|
2 - 1 NYI
|Tim Brent (8) ASST: Colby Armstrong (15)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Michael Grabner (27) ASST: Blake Comeau (21), Josh Bailey (14)|
3 - 2 NYI
|Nikolay Kulemin (25) ASST: Mikhail Grabovski (25), Phil Kessel (23)|
3 - 3 Tie
|Blake Comeau (19) ASST: Radek Martinek (9), Frans Nielsen (29)|
4 - 3 NYI
|Mike Brown Roughing against Micheal Haley|
|Micheal Haley Roughing against Mike Brown|
|Mikhail Grabovski Hi-sticking against Blake Comeau|
|Michael Grabner Hooking against Phil Kessel|
|John Tavares Too many men/ice - bench|
|Micheal Haley Roughing against Dion Phaneuf|