Tense doesn’t even begin to describe the scene at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
The Islanders won 6-4 in a wild, back-and-forth battle full of offense, excitement and physicality, but not without raising the collective blood pressure of New York hockey fans everywhere. The tension came to a head when the Rangers tied the game 4-4 in the third period, but Cal Clutterbuck’s go-ahead goal with 1:28 replaced the mounting pressure with indescribable jubilation.
His celebration said it all, dropping to one knee and touching the ice of the Islanders’ archrivals. The Islanders had capped off their 6-1-0 road trip with their biggest win and most important two points of the seven-game jaunt.
They also improved to 3-0-0 against the Rangers this season.
“It was a crazy game,” Clutterbuck. “The road trip was so long and you go through so many stages. This win right now was the biggest one.”
Clutterbuck’s game-winner came off an offensive-zone draw, with Casey Cizikas winning the faceoff and Clutterbuck jumping in and without hesitating, snapping it top corner on Antti Raanta. Jack Capuano made a gutsy call sending his energy line out at such a critical juncture in the game, but he liked the way the line was playing Sunday and the road trip as a whole.
“Those guys have come up big for us before,” Capuano said. “Sometimes you have a hunch as a coach. That line was good for us tonight again.”
Capuano felt that perhaps his team shouldn’t have been in a tie game with under 10 minutes to play in the third period, based on the amount of offensive chances the Islanders were generating. And in the first period, it looked as though it was going to be a rout.
The Islanders went up 3-0 in the opening 4:45 – before the Rangers even had a shot on goal. Johnny Boychuk netted two in the period, opening the scoring with a wrist shot through Raanta’s five-hole at 2:50. Brock Nelson followed it up with his 22nd of the season 45 seconds later, potting a John Tavares rebound and Kyle Okposo made it 3-0, tipping Nick Leddy’s point shot.
The Rangers didn’t have a shot on goal in the opening 10 minutes, but once they did, the goals followed. Oscar Lindberg and Tanner Glass scored goals 38 seconds apart, signaling to the Islanders that their work was not over, and you can never turn your back on your cross-town rivals.
“We dominated the first period, they didn’t even have a sniff,” Capuano said. “Give them credit, they played hard, they are a good team.”
Boychuk reestablished the two-goal lead 1:20 later, flinging a puck from the point that caught a screened Raanta by surprise. Boychuk emphatically celebrated the goal, but again, the Rangers bit back quickly. Jaroslav Halak stopped Eric Staal’s initial deflection, but the newly-acquired Ranger tucked his own rebound in at 13:45.
The first period stayed action packed until the intermission, as Leddy hit a post, Halak stopped Derek Stepan twice on a shorthanded breakaway and Dominic Moore hit the crossbar in the final minute.
“Seven goals, back-and-forth, back and forth; it was a fun period,” Boychuk said. “But we have to buckle down defensively.”
Naturally, the high-octane first led to a scoreless second period.
Halak made 11 saves in the second period, while Raanta stopped seven, a confidence boost for the two netminders. Frans Nielsen’s shorthanded breakaway was the Islanders best chance of the period, but he was turned away by Raanta after having a stick thrown at him by Mats Zuccarello.
The Islanders had chances to put the game away in the third period, but the finishing touch just wasn’t quite there. Shane Prince hit a post, Anders Lee was stopped on a two-on-one and that allowed the Rangers to stay in the game long enough for Derick Brassard to score the tying goal with 8:21 to play in the third.
“They are tight games,” Clutterbuck said. “They come down to inches here and bounces there.”
And for the Islanders, who had gone 5-1-0 on their trip entering Sunday’s game, but hadn’t moved up in the standings, the two points against a divisional opponent were huge. The pressure in the standings is almost as great as the tension was on the ice Sunday.
Fortunately for the Islanders, Clutterbuck came through in the clutch and relieved it.
Boychuk and Nielsen Postgame