The Islanders are ready to ring in the New Year after closing out the decade with a statement 4-3 matinee victory over the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals on Dec. 31 at Capital One Arena.
The win wasn't the prettiest, but the Isles stayed true to their identity and showed teeth in the face of a relentless Capitals squad who pushed all the way until the final buzzer. The Isles' victory was powered by secondary scoring from Casey Cizikas (2G) and Tom Kuhnhackl while Brock Nelson also found the back of the net. Semyon Varlamov stood tall for the Isles as he made the consecutive starts for the second time this season and turned aside 38 shots, 17 of which came in the third period. Win the win, the Isles claimed an important 'W' to wrap-up their three-game road trip 2-1-0.
"We knew that we were going to play a heavy team in Washington that probably has more offensive power than Minnesota," Head Coach Barry Trotz said of his former club. "[Washington] is pretty dangerous. They've got some elite players. It was good to build off of [Minnesota]. You don't want to have good game and then not build off of that. There are some things in this game that we can build on and some things in this game that we're going to have to correct."
Video: Cizikas, Varlamov help Islanders defeat Capitals
The Islanders opened up scoring with first-period goals from Cizikas and Nelson. Cizikas deflected an initial Scott Mayfield shot to net his seventh goal of the season 7:13 into the first period. Just over three-minutes later Nick Leddy weaved his way into the high slot before dishing the puck out to the right faceoff circle for Nelson. Nelson beat Caps' goalie Braden Holtby with a clean wrister for his 14th goal of the season.
The Capitals responded to their 2-0 deficit just 14 seconds after Nelson's goal. Dmitry Orlov forechecked the Isles in their zone and found Evgeny Kuznetsov on the doorstep and Kuznetsov stickhandled to draw Varlamov from his crease as he scored his first of two goals on the afternoon.
Four minutes later, the Caps matched the Isles score. Washington's top line worked the Isles blueline as Alexander Ovechkin played Nicklas Backstrom in the slot. Backstrom circled behind the net before he sent a shifty pass to Tom Wilson positioned on the goal mouth who tapped in the feed to make it 2-2.
Kutznetsov gave the Caps their first and only lead of the game as he scored his second goal of the afternoon 44 seconds into the second period. T.J. Oshie dropped a pass to Kuznetsov in the slot who curved his shot over the right shoulder of Varlamov to make it 3-2.
Video: NYI@WSH: Cizikas deflects Mayfield's point shot in
After allowing three straight, the Isles needed a response and they got one from their spark plug in Cizikas.
Cizikas evened the score 3-3 at 4:27 in the second period, as the energetic center jumped the rush to grab a pass from Matt Martin and then rifled his a long-range wrister past Holtby.
Kuhnhackl scored the eventual game-winner at 12:34 in the middle frame with his second goal in as many games. Kuhnhackl buried the tic-tac-toe play from linemates Anders Lee and Barzal as he snuck his shot short side of Holtby. Tuesday marked Kuhnhackl's second straight game alongside Lee and Barzal.
"You rely so much on your top part of your lineup," Trotz said of the Isles secondary scoring. "Over the course of the season, when some of the [bottom-six forwards] get a lot of the grunt work, the penalty killing, the six-on-fives, where you've got to lay down and commit yourself, [those players scoring] helps your whole bench. Our lines are spread out a little bit more and everyone is contributing. No one is worried about ice time and all of that. We're just worried about winning hockey games."
Video: NYI@WSH: Kuhnhackl sneaks wrist shot in top shelf
With a fragile one-goal lead, the Isles weathered the feisty push from the Caps in the third period, who created a flurry of chances on 17 shots on goal. The key stop came in the final minute, as the Capitals had a six-on-four after Scott Mayfield took a tripping penalty and Holtby was pulled from the net.
"They came up with a push there at the end," Kuhnhackl said. "Our whole team was committed and blocking shots. We were getting pucks out of our own end, making them play a 200-foot game. Our goaltending was huge too."
Video: NYI 4 WSH 3: Barry Trotz
VARLAMOV GETS SECOND-STRAIGHT NOD:
For the second time this season, Varalmov made consecutive starts and improved his record to 14-3-3.
Varlamov was tested until the final whistle, but stood on his head, stopping all 17 Caps shots in the third period. In one instance, Kuznetsov tried to complete the hat trick with a handful of seconds remaining in the period when he fired a wrister on the fly at Varlamov, but Varlamov snatched the puck out of the air.
"That's a heck of a hockey team over there," Cizikas said after the game. "In the third period they really brought it. We bent, but we didn't break and that was the biggest thing. When we needed big saves, Varly stood on his head. He was outstanding tonight and I think he was our MVP."
The Isles goalie rotation ended after 33 games on Dec. 21 as Varlamov was the first of the Isles goalie tandem to receive consecutive nods. Varlamov has won his past two starts.
"It wasn't an easy one today," Varlamov said. "We battled, especially in the third period, I have to give this team credit. Even if we gave up a lot of shots, we were battling to the end."
Video: NYI@WSH: Cizikas rifles wrister in for second goal
CIZIKAS SCORES TWICE:
Cizikas has three goals in as many games for the Isles and now has eight goals in 32 games. Last season was a career-high year for the 28-year-old, who reached 20 goals and 33 points for the first time in his nine-year career.
"The puck was finding me out there," Cizikas said. "On that first one [Mayfield] made a great play to find me in the high slot. I was just able to get a stick on it and Marty was in front of the net with his big body just making havoc there. On the second one, turnover in the neutral zone and Marty made a great play up to me. I was able to get the shot off. I'm pretty sure they got a bit of a stick on it to throw Holtby off, but I was glad to see it go in.
While Cizikas is playing confident hockey, he's dedicated to his role as a smothering forward who thrives in the gritty areas. If the offense comes, that a byproduct of his unwavering persistence, but not his sole focus.
"When we met at the end of the year I said, 'You had a career year, that's fantastic,'" Trotz said. "I just told him that's a big jump from [nine goals to 20]. I'm not saying you can never do it again, but I'm saying you're better than nine, but 20 is pretty hard. Especially with no power play time, that's pretty impressive without getting any power play. With that being said, if he keeps playing Cizikas' hockey he's going to have success and his numbers will incline."
Video: NYI@WSH: Nelson roofs wrister from outside circle
NELSON SCORES 14TH OF THE SEASON:
Nelson is second in the Isles leaderboard behind Barzal in goals (14), assists (16) and points (30). The center nearly scored his second goal of the night just under eight-minutes in the second period as he took advantage of a turnover and tried to dangle past Holtby, but was unlucky as he was denied by Holtby's outstretched pad.
Nelson was selected by the NHL to be voted as one of the Last Men In for the 2020 All-Star Game in St. Louis. Voting for the Last Men In opens Wednesday, Jan. 1, at 12 p.m. ET and closes Friday, Jan. 10, at 11:59 p.m. ET.
The Islanders return to NYCB Live on Jan. 2 to host the New Jersey Devils.