The Islanders entered the third period of their Jan. 29 game against Pittsburgh needing to kill off the bulk of a five-minute major penalty against one of the league’s top power plays. Despite having a four-goal lead, the Islanders went to intermission knowing that a breakdown could bring the Penguins right back into the game, while a successful kill could effectively deflate any potential momentum.
“I think everybody realized the importance of it,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “It was five minutes, so it’s not like the power play would have ended if they scored. They would have stayed on the advantage. We saw it as a really good opportunity to take the rest of the game away from them. If they score, they get some momentum and they might climb back into it. We really didn’t want a repeat of the Tampa game and we really just tried to tie things up defensively.”
The Islanders had taken a similar 4-0 lead a week earlier against the Lightning at Nassau Coliseum, but allowed Tampa Bay to come back with three goals in a span of six minutes in the third, setting the tone for a tense finish.
While the Islanders went on to win that game, they made sure to avoid a similar lapse in Pittsburgh.
The Islanders held the Penguins power play, including a top line of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, to just two scattered shots during the five-minute advantage.
“Our PK was good and it was aggressive,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “We just stressed making them go 200 feet and taking 25-second shifts. Looking back, they probably shot the puck a little more than we wanted, but we kept the puck on the perimeter.”
The Islanders penalty kill went 3-for-3 Tuesday and ranks third in the NHL at 95.0% (19-for-20) on the season. When you factor in Michael Grabner’s shorthanded goal on Jan. 24 at Toronto, the Islanders are one of two teams (Boston) with an even goal differential when playing down a man.
As the last line of defense, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is often the first to see what goes right or wrong during penalty killing situations.
“It takes everybody on the ice to work together as a group,” Nabokov said. “If one guy gets lazy or one guy doesn’t read as well as the other three guys the whole thing is going to fall out. Now we are making the right reads. The guys are clearing the rebounds really well and we’re working well as a unit.”
Preventing second and third chances is something the Islanders defense has taken pride in.
“I think it’s something that we’ve really tried to address at the start of the season: no second chances in front,” MacDonald said. “Obviously whoever has been in net has done a great job of making that first save. It’s your responsibility as a defenseman to not allow those second shots and chances, whether you clear it down the ice or clear to a soft area in the corner. You just really want to get the pressure away from the front of the net.”
The Islanders power play has done its part to score clutch goals this season, scoring in five of the six games so far. In Pittsburgh, the Islanders power play turned a 2-0 lead into a 4-0 advantage in less than two minutes, scoring quickly on its only two shots.
John Tavares, who scored one of the two man advantage markers Tuesday, said that the power play has improved greatly since the first game, even though the statistics would show that it wasn’t bad to start.
“Overall we weren’t doing the little things that make such a big difference on a power play,” Tavares said. “We had a good meeting before the Winnipeg game saying how much better and sharper we had to be. And we have been. Last year we had a good power play and we knew special teams would be crucial for us again this year. You’re not always going to score on the PP, but it’s good to see us not just create momentum, but to get the goals when we needed to in some big moments.”
On Tavares’ goal, Frans Nielsen passed the puck from the left point down low to Matt Moulson, who made a slick touch across the crease to the centerman. The goal, which looked like a well-choreographed piece of art, was more adlibbed than by design.
“I remember I couldn’t find any options,” Nielsen said. “I was at the blue line and a guy was coming at me. Matt took his stick out from the net and gave me an option. I didn’t know what Matt saw – he just made a great play.”
“Fransy did a great job reading all the high pressure they had and bypassed one of their defenseman down low and created a 2-on-1 for me and Matt,” Tavares said. “Matt made a great pass. When we’re sharp and we’re moving and we’re making it tough on teams to cover all of our options, I don’t think many teams will have a chance with our skill level out there.”
The genesis of that goal, as well as most of the other Islanders goals on the man advantage, has been getting to what Capuano refers to as the “tough areas” of the ice, right in front of the net, and often paying a physical price.
“If you look at Moulson’s goal on the power play (at Pittsburgh), it’s in the paint,” Capuano said. “If you look at a lot of the goals, they’re in the paint. Brad Boyes’ goal in Toronto was in the paint. You’ve got to get to those areas if you want to score goals, because these goalies are too good on the outside to make the save. It’s the second and third opportunities that will get you the scoring chances, so we have to make sure we converge to the net.”
The Islanders rank fourth in the league on the advantage at 30.0% (6-for-20), up from 18.5% (8th in the NHL) a year ago, albeit with a smaller sample size. Nielsen believes the reason for the success this season has been the chemistry. Most of the players on the power play units were on the team last year, and systematically, not much has changed.
“All the breakouts and faceoff plays, we know that from last year,” Nielsen said. “That definitely makes it easier. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to [Assistant Coach Doug Weight]. He’s doing a tremendous job scouting the other team and telling us what to do out there. The system is pretty much the same. Dougie wanted to do the same that gave us success on the power play last year. We actually haven’t changed a lot.”
For a team learning to play with a lead more often than playing catch-up, games like Tuesday against Pittsburgh will go a long way toward boosting confidence in tight, late-game situations.