The New York Islanders’ New Year’s resolution should be to start 2016 the way they finished 2015.
Thomas Greiss made 42 saves, while Frans Nielsen and Nikolay Kulemin scored, as the Islanders beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 on New Year’s Eve at First Niagara Center. The win was the Islanders’ second straight victory and helped them finish the calendar year 43-29-11 and 97 points, tying their mark from 2014.
“He’s been there for us all year,” Nielsen said of Greiss. “We weren’t surprised that he was there for us [tonight].”
The Islanders put their top-ranked penalty kill to the test in the first period, killing off three penalties including a 54-second, five-on-three. The Sabres peppered Greiss to the tune of 11 shots during the three penalties, but the Islanders’ backstop held the fort. The penalties were the determining factor in the Sabres’ 17-5 shot advantage in the first period, but the teams played to a 0-0 score.
“We were running around. Give them credit they shot pucks,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “The reason we came out of this game in the first period was because of our goaltender.”
The Islanders only needed one power play to convert, opening the score at 9:35. Linus Ullmark couldn’t handle a wrister from John Tavares and the Islanders swarmed the crease, with Nielsen ultimately poking the loose puck across the line. Nielsen’s goal was his 14th of the season, tying Tavares for the team lead.
“I didn’t see the puck, but I heard the crowd make the sound where something is loose,” Nielsen said. “So I started looking and it was sitting there right on the goal line.”
Kulemin padded the Islanders lead in the third period, extending his scoring streak to three games. Kulemin snapped a Kyle Okposo pass through Ullmark’s pads at 1:07, moments after Johnny Boychuk missed a shot over the net.
“In the second and third period we played good hockey,” Capuano said. “All we had to do was stay out of the penalty box. I knew that once we started to play more even strength hockey that we’d be okay and that was the case.”
The Islanders penalty kill streak ended at 42 straight kills Thursday, as Ryan O’Reilly scored a power-play goal at 11:18 of the third period, beating Greiss stick side. Johnny Boychuk broke his stick during the Islanders’ kill, giving the Sabres a de factor two-man advantage. Prior to O’Reilly’s goal, the Islanders hadn’t allowed a goal in 15 straight games.
“We played a good third period,” Anders Lee said. “We gave them an opportunity on the power play in the third and they were able to capitalize, but our PK has been good for so long and Greiss has been a wall back there. He kept us in it and gave us a chance to win.”
Boychuk’s tough third period continued, as the defenseman crashed into the end boards at top speed shoulder-first. He left with four-and-a-half minutes to play and did not return. Capuano did not have an immediate update after the game, but said it was “upper body” and that Boychuk “was lucky” and that the collision could have been worse.
“I’m just glad it wasn’t his head or his neck,” Capuano said.
With 2015 in the rearview, the Islanders begin their 2016 schedule on Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the rivals’ first meeting of the season. Puck drop is at 7 p.m.