The New York Islanders started their Western swing on the right foot Tuesday, riding their special teams to a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.
John Tavares and Frans Nielsen scored power-play goals, while Nielsen added a shorthanded empty-netter, capping off a perfect 5-for-5 night for the NHL’s top-ranked penalty kill.
“It’s always nice to get off to a good start,” Nielsen said. “We did a good job on the small details tonight,” Nielsen said. “We were digging in on the PK and did all the little things. It paid off [tonight].”
The Islanders’ power play has been dangerous of late, scoring in seven of the team’s last nine games. They went 2-for-3 on Tuesday, with Nielsen deflecting a Tavares pass past Devan Dubnyk at 12:15 of the first period and Tavares finishing some pretty passing with a backdoor tap-in at 2:42 of the third.
“We’re shooting more pucks and we’re hungrier on the rebounds,” Nielsen said. “We have a simpler power play right now.”
The win improved the Islanders to 6-1-1 over their past eight games, as they banked a crucial two points on a night New Jersey, Detroit and Tampa Bay all picked up wins. The penalty kill – which kills at an NHL-best 87.2% - played a key role in the win and Head Coach Jack Capuano made sure to praise his shorthanded unit after the game.
“At this time of the year your goaltending and special teams have to be good and tonight they were,” Capuano said. “I thought we pressured well, we took good routes and Casey Cizikas won some big faceoffs. When we did have some breakdowns [Jaroslav Halak] was there for us.”
Halak turned in 30 saves for the Islanders, winning his second straight game after recording a 24-save shutout against New Jersey on Friday night. The Islanders’ goalie was tested in the first period stopping a Mikael Granlund deflection off the rush for his first save of the period and kicking out the pad on a Justin Fontaine partial break for his last. He came up with big stops as the Islanders needed all night.
“He was focused and determined,” Capuano said of Halak. “Overall I liked Jaro’s game, but our defense especially.”
For the second straight game, the Islanders’ fourth line opened the scoring with an early goal. Matt Martin potted his seventh of the season at 1:36 after Dubnyk mishandled a Steve Bernier dump-in off the end boards.
Bernier drew into the lineup for the injured Mikhail Grabovski, causing Jack Capuano to adjust his lines. Josh Bailey took Grabovski’s spot on the top line, while Cal Clutterbuck played alongside Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. (Bernier, playing for the second time in 23 games, was hungry all night and nearly set up Martin for a second goal early in the middle frame.) Nielsen’s power-play goal put the Islanders up 2-0 before the end of the first period.
The Wild made a push in the second period, generating grade-A chances including a Thomas Vanek shot off the crossbar. While the Islanders pushed back, Minnesota was eventually rewarded, as Chris Porter swatted home a rebound with 25.2 seconds to play in the period, making it a 2-1 game and setting up a tight third.
But the Islanders reestablished their two-goal lead and again used the power play to do so. The Islanders connected on a series of pretty passes, with Lee touching a Kyle Okposo feed over to Tavares for a backdoor tap-in at 2:42. Nielsen iced the game with his long-range empty-netter with 2:46 to play.
The Islanders road trip continues on Thursday night in Calgary against the Flames. Puck drop is at 9 p.m. eastern time.
Nielsen and Halak Postgame
Capuano on Special Teams