Emotions ran high as Tuesday’s Islanders-Sabres game against Buffalo progressed, but the young, maturing Islanders sent a message.
Two-and-a-half periods worth of big hits and players on both sides getting in one extra shove following the whistle built up and boiled over at the 7:47 mark of the third period.
Sabres forward Steve Ott spent extra time holding John Tavares behind the Buffalo goal until the cavalry arrived. Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson jumped into the scrum and by the time the dust settled, several gloves, sticks and Steve Ott’s jersey lay on the ice.
“He’s off limits,” Okposo said of the Islanders captain. “That’ll happen. When people want to take liberties with our team or him in particular, we’re going to stand up.”
Okposo and Ott received matching minors but the Sabres captain was slapped with an extra two minutes for roughing Tavares. A minute into the man advantage, the Islanders scored the go-ahead goal.
Islanders head coach Jack Capuano was pleased with the way his team stood up for each other without crossing the line and taking an extra penalty.
“Knowing that we had that one goal lead, we still wanted to play physical, we still wanted to play hard, but the guys knew discipline was a big factor,” Capuano said. “We held our discipline and we got another power play there without taking away from our game. We continued to pressure the puck and play the body.”
Playing physical without going overboard – that’s the approach the Islanders improved upon greatly throughout the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Pittsburgh, when they found ways to get under their opponents’ skin. The maturing Islanders are finding the line and staying just on the right side of the law.
Cal Clutterbuck engaged in a number of heated moments with opposing players and posted a game-high eight hits Tuesday. The Islanders winger has experience, knowing when to back off from an opponent following a lengthy back-and-forth exchange.
“It’s tough,” Clutterbuck said. “A lot of us in this room have that common sense trigger that goes off in our heads. Obviously there are some circumstances where it’s tough to control yourself when other teams try to take liberties on your teammates. There’s a time and a place for taking care of that and we did a good job of that last night.”
While the Islanders eventually lost in the shootout, and didn’t get the two points they set out for, it wasn’t because they took their foot off the gas. The Islanders continued to outshoot the opposition – 10 to 8 in the third period, and 44 to 34 overall, not allowing the Sabres enforcers to get under their skin.
“We played the way we need to play and generated a lot of shots, a lot of scoring opportunities,” forward Matt Martin said. “Sometimes you're going to lose those games but we definitely need to find a way to hold on and start winning them.”
Moral victories won’t get a team into the playoffs, but Okposo added that the Islanders can look at Tuesday’s game as a blueprint to how they need to play going forward.
“Last night we played our game for the most part,” Okposo said. “We were physical. Tenacious. We were beating guys to pucks. We had a couple bad bounces – that happens sometimes. But if we play like that, we’re going to win a lot more games than we lose.”
The Sabres showed the scrappy resolve of a team trying to climb its way out of the Eastern Conference cellar. The Islanders next opponent, the Edmonton Oilers, is a team playing in similar circumstances. The Oilers sit in last place in the Western Conference and are looking to reverse a 1-5-1 start. Game time Thursday against Edmonton is 7:00 p.m.