Colin McDonald may have only earned Third Star honors in the 4-3 shootout win over Philadelphia Thursday, but the Islanders right wing was an indispensable part of the victory.
With the team trailing 2-1 in the third period, McDonald scored once to tie the game, and then again to give the Islanders the lead less than six minutes later. Head Coach Jack Capuano says that McDonald, who scored the goals while stepping in on two different lines, has been rewarded on the score sheet because he continues to buy into the coaches’ system.
“He’s just playing within the team concept,” Capuano said. “He plays the way that we want him to play and he knows where to be. Both of his goals stem from his position of play in the offensive zone as a high forward, mirroring the puck, doing the right things and grinding it out. Those are the things that take hard work to be successful and that’s why Colin is where he is right now.”
McDonald has six goals and seven assists through 31 games this season, but Thursday’s performance marked his first career two-goal game. The first, midway through the third period, came when he found open space in the slot to receive a pretty pass from Keith Aucoin.
“[Keith] made a great pass to me and I know that he can read those plays pretty quickly,” McDonald said. “I tried to get some open ice for him.”
The second was more adlibbed – his initial shot from up high was blocked, and his second try went in off a defenseman, changing direction in front of Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
“With that line (of Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin), I just try and grind it out and create energy,” McDonald said. “The puck came right back out at me. At that point, I wasn’t trying to score; I was just trying to get the puck at net. I got the bounce that you wanted in the situation and was lucky enough to have those two fortunate plays.”
They all look like bar-down snipes on the score sheet. And the Islanders needed both strikes to get one point – let alone two – Thursday.
The other first for McDonald in Thursday's game came during the opening period. After delivering a hit in the corner on Philadelphia defenseman Kimmo Timonen, McDonald was confronted by Scott Hartnell. McDonald stood his ground against the veteran pugilist (who already had one goal in the game), and went toe-to-toe near center ice for his first NHL fight.
“He initiated it, telling me that it was a high hit,” McDonald said of Hartnell. “I had some chances to fight earlier this year and I chose not to. I don’t necessarily like doing it but with the importance of the game, I just decided to get it out of the way in hopes that it would get the guys going.”
“That play goes to show you that in big games, big players step up,” Capuano said. “We talked before the game about how it was going to be a hard, physical match. The opportunity presented itself. He didn’t back down and that’s what we are looking for and it obviously got our team going.”
Through the second and third periods, the Islanders erased a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead. Part of Capuano’s plan to wear teams down late in games is to take advantage of the physical edge that players up and down the Islanders lineup bring to the table. The Islanders out-hit the Flyers 31-13 during the game.
“For us to be successful, we have to make sure that we play clean hockey, but that we’re hard on their skill guys,” Capuano said. “Every opportunity we have to separate the man from the puck, we have to continue to do that.”
The “energy line” of Martin (166 hits), McDonald (90 hits) and Cizikas (61 hits), ranks first, second and third on the team in throwing the body around. Martin, who leads the league in the category after setting an NHL record with 374 in 2011-12, says that having two line mates who carry the same threat to opponents every shift makes the Islanders a more dangerous team to play against.
“It beneficial to the team that we have more guys throwing hits now,” Martin said. “Colin and Casey get involved and throw the body around, which helps create the energy. We feed off of each other whenever we’re on the ice together. It’s hard for the other team to avoid it. They have to recognize that there are three guys on the ice coming after them and it definitely makes life for them rough.”
And while that line’s focus will remain playing the opponent’s skill players tough, they will have their work cut out for them Saturday, when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of 14 straight. That game can be found at 1:00 p.m. on MSG-plus.