CHICAGO - It still wasn't the kind of game the Chicago Blackhawks were looking to play, but they wound up with two points and that's good enough for now.
After leaving three points on the table in their previous two games, the defending Stanley Cup champions got the result they wanted on Friday night at United Center by beating the New York Islanders 3-2 - fending off a New York power play in the third period to help seal it.
"We'll certainly take the points," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who juggled his forward lines in the first period before settling on a few combinations in the last 40 minutes. "We didn't get that extra goal tonight, which made it close right to the end, but I still think we did some good things."
Michal Handzus' first goal of the season broke a 2-2 tie 6:45 into the second period and stood up as the game-winner thanks to a stifling defense that limited New York to 19 shots on goal.
Swedish rookie forward Joakim Nordstrom and captain Jonathan Toews had first-period goals and defenseman Duncan Keith had a pair of primary assists for the Blackhawks (2-1-1), who earned their first victory since beating the Washington Capitals here on opening night.
"Our shot selection might've been a little off-target tonight, but we certainly had the puck a lot and generated some dangerous plays." Quenneville said. "[We] didn't have the finish we'd like, but I liked what we gave up, and that wasn't much."
Behind the stellar defensive effort stood 40-year old veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who made 17 saves - six in the third period - to earn the victory in his first non-preseason appearance with the Blackhawks since leaving after the 2008-09 season.
"Sometimes it's tough when the goalies don't get a whole lot of shots, so he was great tonight," Keith said. "He's a little more talkative now than he was back four or five years ago, so it's good to have him back."
It was also good to see two more points added in the standings, after blowing a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last Saturday at home and then losing 3-2 on the road to the rival St. Louis Blues on Wednesday - giving up the game-winner off a 3-on-1 rush with 21.1 seconds left in regulation.
Chicago also blew a 2-0 lead against the Islanders, but it happened at the end of the first period and was immediately addressed in the locker room.
"[The third period] was good," said Handzus, who also scored as the result of a shot by Keith. "We had a PK, so we had that, but we need to learn how to close a game for sure."
Kevin Poulin lost his season debut for New York despite a solid 25-save performance, while Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo scored in the final minute of the first for the Islanders (2-1-1), who took their first regulation loss.
"When you mismanage the puck against that team, if you don't make them play a 200-foot game you're going to be hemmed in and they're going to have success and that's exactly what happened," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We had chances to shoot the puck from the point tonight with net presence … we didn't do that. Our execution level was down."
Captain John Tavares echoed those sentiments.
"They're the Stanley Cup champs and at the same time I don't think you want to respect them too much or put too much into it," said Tavares, who had three teeth knocked out -- reportedly the same ones that were knocked out last month -- but didn't miss s shift. "We have to go out there and play our game and earn it and we really didn't give the full 60 minutes we needed."
The Blackhawks couldn't have asked for a much better start, grabbing a 2-0 lead on the goals by Nordstrom and Toews.
Nordstrom scored the first of his NHL career 9:32 into the game off a perfect cross-ice feed through the crease by defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, while Toews gave Chicago the two-goal cushion at 16:05 with his second of the season. He picked up the carom of Keith's miss off the end boards and scored from the left circle.
The lead didn't last long.
New York knotted it 2-2 and stole the momentum going into the first intermission with the goals by Bailey and Okposo, separated by 49 seconds in the last minute of the period. Bailey beat Khabibulin from the low slot with a snap shot to the far side during a delayed penalty call for goalie interference against Toews.
Okposo then hit the back of the net in almost identical fashion at even strength with 4.8 seconds left on the clock, sliding to the low slot and beating Khabibulin past his blocker with a wrist shot that rewarded Tavares for some nifty work behind the net.
It was a small-scale example of the Blackhawks' biggest problem in their first three games - struggling to maintain leads. This time, however, it happened early and didn't happen again. Neither team scored in a defense-dominated third period, with the Blackhawks killing off a penalty to preserve the lead.
Chicago also killed off both New York power plays and didn't allow a goal against a man-advantage for the first time in four games.
"We know what we have to do to protect those leads and to play smart late in games," Toews said. "I think we've improved on that. We've improved, especially on the penalty kill, and I think that kind of showed in the defensive effort we made."
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